By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – According to the European Parliament, the European aeronautics sector will need 40,000 new planes during the next 20 years to accommodate its steady growth. Indeed, European air traffic continues to rise: according to SESAR, the EU-sponsored Single European Sky entity, EU airports will see 14.4 million flights and 1.4 billion passengers a year by 2035 – up 40 percent and 100 percent, respectively, from 2012.
But as the terrorist attacks in Brussels’s Zaventem airport in March 2016 showed, it remains an open question how safe passengers will be during their voyages. More passengers means greater growth opportunities. More elaborate security protocols, however, usually mean regulating, if not restraining, that growth. Where will Europe find the balance between the two?
During an aeronautics conference held in the European Parliament on 18 October, the focus was on growth, with EP President Antonio Tajani declaring: “we need an industry strategy for Europe”.
Before rushing off for another event, he introduced a report written by the Sky and Space Intergroup, a European parliamentary caucus chaired by German MEP Monika Hohlmeier of the European People’s Party.
The report emphasises the important of the aeronautics sector for Europe’s economy, noting that the industry employs half a million workers and generates EUR 46 billion in European exports (i.e., one third of the world aeronautics market). But it also says that “increasingly fierce” competition from the US, China, India and other countries plus threats from terrorism and cyber-crime could undermine Europe’s position near the top of the global aviation market.
The report offers 12 ‘action points’ where European institutions could support the sector. For example, it says the EU should increase civil aviation research and innovation funding by boosting the budgets of the CleanSky Joint Undertaking – an initiative to make the EU’s aviation industry more energy-efficient – and SESAR to EUR 5 billion in the EU’s seven-year general budget, which begin in 2021.
It also advocates improving aviation safety by making the goals of digitalisation, automation and electrification research priorities, adding that the EU could develop education and training programmes to include civil aviation cybersecurity and automation as topics. Drone research, deployment and regulation is another recommended action point, as is the promotion European safety regulations, certification standards and policies on the international stage.
None of the points dealt directly with airport or aeronautics security. About the closest anyone came to the topic – and it was not very close – was EU Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc, who told the conference that research and innovation “will allow us to overcome issues such as competition, the proper deployment of drones, security and safety, and carbon emissions.”
While the importance of aeronautics to the European economy is unquestioned, the EU should not minimise the importance of security at airports and for aviation more generally when talking about the sector’s future prospects.
This is not simply a matter of watching for terrorists at airports. Cyber-attacks that target and commandeer drones for criminal or terrorist purposes are a looming threat that few talk about. A cyber-criminal version of Murphy’s Law might read: whatever can be hacked, will be hacked. And it’s just a matter of time before a clever extremist uses a compromised drone to wreck havoc somewhere amidst all those bright prospects for Europe’s aviation sector.