As the aviation industry grapples with the coronavirus crisis, it’s easy to forget that the small matter of Brexit is just a few weeks away.
And with the transition period ending at the close of the year — and no trade deal yet in place — there are big question marks over whether the future relationship agreement will cover aviation.
With talks still ongoing, there are hopes that aviation will be included — but there is concern in the industry that time is running out to make any necessary preparations.
Here’s what the end of the transition means for the sector.
1. Will passenger planes still be able to fly between the EU and the U.K. after Brexit?
That’s the killer question. Negotiations are ongoing to make sure that flights between the two don’t just suddenly stop come January 1.
Without a new arrangement, in the new year the U.K. stops being a member of the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA) — the world’s largest liberalized aviation market. It encompasses all nine of the so-called freedoms of the air — allowing carriers from one country full rights to operate, pick up and drop off passengers and cargo and fly wherever they want.
Outside of the ECAA, the U.K. faces much tighter limits. Without a deal, operating licenses of U.K. airlines will no longer be valid in the EU — forcing them to move their principal place of business to the EU to keep operating in the bloc. All certificates, licenses and registrations covering pilots, parts and airplanes become invalid and would need to be validated again in an EU member country.
Britain’s Transport Minister Grant Shapps says he expects the EU to bring forward contingency measures — which London would reciprocate — but he says that the U.K. is holding out for some “sensible additional flexibilities.”
Despite the looming deadline, many airlines say they’re not too worried. They point to the no-deal contingency measures drawn up between London and Brussels in March 2019 that would have ensured connectivity in the event of no agreement.
The International Air Transport Association’s Regional Vice President for Europe Rafael Schvartzman told a press briefing that this would be the preferred option. Otherwise, the U.K. will have to resort to bilateral agreements with each EU member country, which he said was a “very dramatic situation that we’re not expecting to see.”
There is unlikely to be much disruption to U.K. flights to non-EU destinations. The British government has gone some way to making alternative arrangements with 17 countries where air services are determined by EU-negotiated multilateral ones.
Last week, London finalized its deal with the U.S. — a particularly important one for the Brits given that the New York-London route is one of the most lucrative in the world (although it’s not seeing much action at the moment, of course).
2. What about cargo, charter or business airlines?
They’re a bit more pessimistic.
With no agreement in place, U.K. operators will have to apply for permits each time they want to fly between EU member countries.
For example, if a U.K.-operated aircraft drops off cargo in Belgium and wants to pick up a new shipment and fly that to Germany, the operator would need to apply separately for Belgian and German landing permits — which in some cases can take days to obtain.
Dave Edwards from the Air Charter Association said there is “no clarity” on how and if U.K. charter, cargo and business airlines will be able to operate flights between EU member countries.
“That is a huge concern for the sector … We remain hopeful of a deal, but at the same time realistic given the time remaining. Ultimately this could be a very disappointing position for U.K. operators,” he said.
3. Will travelers have to spend hours in long lines?
One of the most tangible consequences of Brexit is that Brits will have to join longer, and slower, lines to get through EU airports.
Reports in October suggested Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants continued access for British citizens to the automatic e-gates used by EU nationals at airports and Eurostar terminals.
Will that actually happen? It’s a tough one. The Schengen Borders Code requires a manual check of non-EU nationals’ passports that can only be performed by a border guard. That means swiping straight through e-gates is very unlikely for Brits.
To complicate things further, the EU is changing its rules from early 2022, moving away from manual checks to an automated IT system for registering non-EU nationals. The hope is that the queues for non-EU nationals reduces as airports move away from manually stamping passports (while the EU believes it will help detect people over-staying their visa in the bloc).
From the U.K. side, “provision will be made” to ensure that EU, EEA and Swiss citizens with biometric passports will still be able to use the quicker e-passport gates (which are also open to citizens of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the U.S., Singapore and South Korea) — though the government says this will be kept “under review.”
4. What happens to pilot licenses when the transition period ends?
This is a particular concern for some in the U.K. aviation industry, who worry flight training and mutual recognition of licenses will not be included in an agreement. They fear their flight training could become less competitive as pilot training in the U.K. may not be automatically accepted by EU countries.
It also means a likely increase in fees for flight training schools in Britain, which will have to decide whether to opt for an EU approval, by the bloc’s aviation safety regulator EASA, in addition to one from Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority.
According to Martin Robinson, CEO of the British branch of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, that means: “This change is not likely to make the U.K. more competitive in the world for flight training.”
“There are some difficult decisions ahead for many: uncertain business volumes from next year, uncertain costs, overheads with no clear view of the future relationship between the EU and U.K.,” he said. “This could all change by the end of the year, but for now the government’s message is ‘plan for the worst and hope for the best.’”
5. What are the outlines of a possible post-Brexit deal?
There are several potential models of what a potential deal could look like, spelled out by the Insitute for Government think tank.
Britain could rejoin the ECAA as a new member. That’s what Bosnia and Herzegovina did recently, although this might prove to be tricky as it would require support from all 27 EU countries and Spain has made clear it won’t wave through such an agreement due to concern over Gibraltar’s airport.
The U.K. could also agree to a Switzerland-style deal that guarantees almost full access to the ECAA, although this would mean the continuing influence of the Court of Justice of the European Union — a red line for the U.K. — and again Spain would have qualms.
Otherwise, the U.K would have to strike individual agreements with EU countries to bypass these concerns, but that would be hugely time-consuming.
The EU’s draft negotiating mandate says it would be open to a new open skies agreement with the U.K. but with level playing field obligations to ensure Britain maintained current standards on state aid, labor laws, the environment and competition — something of a problem for London.
The other option would be to fall back on old international agreements like the 1944 Chicago Convention, which weren’t designed for the modern aviation era. That would would still see U.K. licenses and registrations lose their validity post-Brexit.
Whatever the preferred deal, there is some frustration emanating from the sector on both sides of the Channel.
One European operator said: “The big problem is we have no information from the European Commission. They have told us many times they were hoping to land a deal in the next few weeks. The lack of visibility is a huge problem.”