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SAVi Report

Tuesday 9 April 2024 in Regulation

EU rebukes short-haul bans as it opposes policies ‘prescribing behaviour’

Eduardo Mariz
Senior Analyst at Ishka
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European Commission representatives speaking at an aviation event held by the Commission this month rebuked policies “prescribing human behaviour,” drawing a red line around EU-wide short-haul flight bans such as the one enacted by France in 2023. “That's something that at the European Commission level we are being very careful about not doing,” commented Magda Kopczynska, Director-General of the Commission’s Department for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE). Kopczynska’s position was backed by other senior EU officials at the event.

The EU’s main executive body hosted the Connecting Europe by Air event at Brussels Airport’s emblematic Skyhall on 3rd April, welcoming several hundred industry stakeholders and policymakers. The bureaucrat-heavy speaker lineup took stock of five years of intense legislative progress to decarbonise aviation and laid out details on ongoing policy efforts. Ishka summarises some of the main takeaways from the event.

Short-haul bans? The Commission underlines ‘no’

Last week’s conference was part of the Connecting Europe Days series of events, tackling policy questions around better mobility integration and transportation improvements in the EU. From the very start, officials struck a conciliatory tone towards industry. Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo underlined that pitting industries against climate priorities is “wrong” as businesses should continue to exist “in parallel” to green policies. “Our role [as government] is to set targets,” De Croo told the conference.

“In Europe, we have a healthy competition between our airports, and I welcome this,” signalled in a subsequent keynote Adina Valean, European Commissioner for Transport. The pro-free market comment, while short, was echoed in panel discussions by Valean’s staff. “Prescribing human behaviour is not a good way forward,” commented DG MOVE head Kopczynska during a later hot seat debate when questioned about short-haul flight bans. At a later panel, DG MOVE deputy Herald Rujters reaffirmed Kopczynska’s point, saying in no situation is the Commission aiming to favour one mode of transport over others. “Air connectivity is crucial.”

Airport representatives, including the one co-hosting the event, reiterated their opposition to short-haul flight limitations. Brussels Airport CEO Arnaud Feist called short-haul bans “anti-democratic” while the vice chairman of Aena, Spain’s largest airport operator, urged to “not confuse multi-modality with replacing aviation with rail.” “Don’t prioritise rail [over aviation],” he underlined.

EU to mandate airport railway connections

Rail prioritisation or not, a bid to nudge European travellers to make a modal shift to rail is currently brewing as part of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) regulation, which aims to foster the “efficient transportation of people and goods” throughout the EU. A revised version of the TEN-T (published last December) was presented in Brussels as part of the same series of events.

The proposed legislation, which was approved by an EU Parliament committee last February and is on its way to final adoption, calls for airports with more than 12 million passengers per year to be connected to the long-distance rail network “including the high-speed railway network where possible.” In Valean’s words, “this will help us provide alternatives for passengers to reach their final destination in a much more integrated transport system.” Based on 2023 passenger movement statistics, the requirement would apply to around 32 of the EU’s largest mainland airports.

But the current version of the legislation as amended by the Parliament aims to provide more than just an alternative to driving to the airport, it explicitly outlines the need to integrate airports with long-distance rail “in order to provide alternatives to short haul flights.” Providing rail alternatives does not mean banning flights, and indeed Vice-President of the European Parliament Jan-Christoph Oetjen urged at the conference not to abolish short-haul flights as part of efforts to improve transportation multi-modality.

SES II finalised, but Commission open to revisiting policy

The recent provisional agreement on the reform of the Single European Sky (SES), long touted as an enabler of up to 10% emissions reductions through operational efficiencies, was also briefly discussed at the event. While the industry is still taking stock of the agreement, the reaction by airlines has been negative, partly due to the lack of regulatory power by the SES review board and the lack of EU-wide operational optimisation targets.

DG MOVE head Kopczynska conceded that the agreement between the Council and the Parliament is “maybe not as good as we wanted to have it” but called it a “starting point” for the EU to work with member states and industry. “We have SES II on the table, let’s talk five years from now and see where we are.” “We are talking six, eight, ten per cent emissions reduction upfront the moment planes start flying differently. And since this discussion about aviation's impact on the environment will not disappear, it'll be coming up [in coming years] with politicians across member states,” added Kopczynska.

Policy pipeline

The EU political cycle may be about to turn a page with parliamentary elections only two months away, but the European Commission is expected to continue to work on a number of key legislative and regulatory files related to aviation decarbonisation until at least well into the Summer. Based on Ishka’s understanding, they include:

  • A ‘Book and Claim’ report which, for aviation, Ishka understands will call for amendments to existing legislation (ReFuelEU Aviation, ETS criteria for aviation, Renewable Energy Directive) to allow for SAF purchased via book and claim to be given the same consideration as physical purchases of SAF, including for operators to access the pool of 20 million free ETS allowances to support SAF to fossil kerosene price parity. This ‘report’ is expected to be published by July.
  • A Non-CO2 monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) proposal, which as previously covered by Ishka precedes a requirement for airlines to start reporting non-CO2 effects (harmful gases, soot particles, contrail formation) from 2025, with a legal proposal in 2027 to codify an extension of the ETS to cover non-CO2 effects.
  • A consultation on incorporating aviation to the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), which could be used to protect European long-haul carriers (subject to the EU’s environmental levies) against non-European competition. Ishka understands an initial consultation could be launched in the coming months. Ishka SAVi will publish a more detailed report on this initiative in the next few weeks.

Oetjen, VP European Parliament, called on the Commission to make progress on both the ‘Book and Claim’ and the Non-CO2 MRV files ahead of the upcoming election. Other panellists, including one airline, also endorsed the need for more progress around the ‘Book and Claim’ report.

The Ishka View

The European Commission has been more supportive of aviation than many critics give it credit for and this shone once again at last week’s event. It is worth remembering that the Commission, in its role as the EU’s chief competition supervisory authority, watered down France’s short-haul flight ban, limiting the city pairs it covers by requiring more frequent rail connections including early and late rail services. Spain’s proposed short-haul flight ban is likely to face similar requirements, which shows the EU is not prepared to curtail air travel as long as no adequate alternatives exist – many of which could take years, if not decades, to create.

Nevertheless, the EU is a strong believer that achieving emissions reductions from transportation will require a modality shift towards lower-carbon alternatives, not least rail. High-speed rail will (and in many cases, already is) curtailing demand between nearby city pairs, but it can also be an enabler for feeder traffic. The CEO of Brussels Airlines Dorothea von Boxberg pointed out that better rail connections between Brussels and cities in western Germany could, for instance, allow it to tap into international passenger demand for markets currently better served by Air France via two-stage flight journeys connecting in Paris. Belgian PM De Croo in his opening remarks noted that his government has been “in talks” to add high-speed train connections to the airport, which was purportedly the first in the world to have a train station when it opened in 1958. Aena’s vice chairman, Javier Marin, also speculated that freed-up airport slots created by competition from rail could be used to pursue long-haul flight expansion.

Tags: Airports, Belgium, Demand-side lever, EU, France, Rail versus aviation

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