EU transport ministers on Tuesday (4 May) agreed to fast-track "Single European Sky" measures aimed at a greater integration of national airspaces, following the recent disruption of air traffic due to the Icelandic ash cloud.
Under the decision, a European air network manager would be put in place before the end of this year in order to facilitate decision-making among the bloc's 27 national authorities.
The new manager would not preempt national sovereignty on opening or closing airspace, however, EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas said during a press conference, noting the "philosophical" question of relinquishing state powers to Brussels, which is always a sensitive matter among member states.
"It was never supposed to be a super-national authority, but a co-ordination mechanism. The final decision will still rest in the hands of member states," he said.
The new body, which was initially scheduled to be in place by 1 January 2011, would help co-ordinate decisions among national air traffic managers.
It could be based at Eurocontrol, the body currently pooling data and facilitating international flights in 38 European countries, including non-EU members Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and the Balkan states.
Brussels-based Eurocontrol on Tuesday welcomed the ministers' decision to fast track the "Single European Sky" package, as well as measures aimed at establishing more accurate safety standards as to when volcanic ash makes it too dangerous to fly.
The initial response to the April ash cloud – shutting down almost all of European airspace – has since proved to have been exaggerated, but understandable, since it was an unprecedented situation and since the tolerable levels of ash for an aircraft to fly safely were not known at the time.
Ministers said they wanted "the relevant authorities responsible for flight safety, to develop without delay binding limit values, at EU level, which clearly defines the safety envelope of engines and aircrafts as regards the risk of volcanic ashes."
The EU's own air safety agency (EASA), which has kept a low profile during the ash crisis, will also be bolstered and "assume its new competences, particularly on air traffic management, before 2012."
The French and German ministers also stressed, in separate briefings, the need to have binding rules, based on scientific evidence, as to when a plane can fly or not.
"It's simply not acceptable that every country just does what it wants. We need consistent rules," said German minister Peter Ramsauer. His French colleague Dominique Bussereau called for "an efficient and fast system for managing such a crisis."
Spanish transport minister Jose Blanco, who chaired the meeting, had maps of Tuesday's new volcanic ash cloud spreading over Ireland and Scotland, underlining the risk that aviation chaos could return and hurt Europe during the peak summer travel season.
The Irish minister, Noel Dempsey, could not make it to Brussels for the meeting, as the country grounded flights in the morning due to the fresh plume of debris.