Ambitious plans for open skies between Europe and South-east Asia are progressing well, European Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc said after meeting key Asean transport officials, including Singapore's Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, on Sunday.
If it materialises, the agreement - which aims to remove all restrictions, including the number of flights that carriers on both sides can operate between the two areas - will be the first bloc-to-bloc air deal in aviation history.
It will not be easy getting there, but there is strong political will on both sides, Ms Bulc told The Straits Times yesterday, on the sidelines of the Singapore Airshow Aviation Leadership summit.
The discussion with Asean transport officials was constructive and encouraging, she said, adding that there are challenges, different viewpoints and diversity within the 28-member European Union too.
"We have similar differences in Europe and lots of diversity, for example in development infrastructure and investment capacity, but little by little, we are finding common ground and moving forward.
"I am not going to tell you a fairy tale. It's going to be a big challenge. It's going to be lots of work, but the good thing is that you have fewer countries than we do."
The push for Asean-EU liberalisation is partly due to concerns on both sides that while air traffic between Asia and Europe is growing, Middle Eastern carriers appear to be cashing in more than EU and Asean airlines.
Passenger traffic between EU and Asean member states has grown by about 5 per cent per year in the last few years, but the number of direct flights has largely stagnated.
Competition is good, as "it keeps us fit", but the challenge is to make sure that European carriers are part of the growth story, Ms Bulc said.
Apart from air liberalisation, the European Commission is also focused on other issues affecting the aviation industry, including the need to reduce carbon footprint and standardise passenger screening and other measures, she said.
On emissions, Ms Bulc said she is encouraged by the progress that has been made at the global level, led by the United Nations' civil aviation arm, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).
The aim is to develop a global market-based measure to cap the industry's emissions from 2020.
The push for a global solution is sensible, said a seven-member panel that discussed the industry's plans to reduce carbon emissions.
One of the panellists, Mr Willie Walsh, chief executive of the International Airlines Group, said: "The world doesn't know where the CO2 is produced. The gas does not recognise borders, it does not stop when it reaches a border. It is a global problem... that needs a global solution."
On safety and security, discussions are on with global partners to harmonise standards, Ms Bulc said.
Airport screening, for example, can be less of a hassle if there is mutual recognition of security standards and checks among countries.
On whether there are plans for the EU to work with Singapore on this front, Ms Bulc said: "It is certainly something we should be aiming for... Singapore is extremely well-organised. There is a high level of safety and security already present, so that would be a good next move."
Such a partnership would mean that travellers from Singapore transiting within the EU would not need to be screened again before boarding the next flight.