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Brexit conundrum - what about aviation?

Brexit - and more particularly its potential adverse impact on aviation - has troubled The Aviation Oracle for some time now. With negotiations seemingly dragging on interminably, there was legitimate concern in some quarters that a deal would never be forthcoming, and that the UK would crash out of the EU without framework for airlines to continue operating. Maybe there would be some clarity when a deal was finally put on the table?

The long-awaited Draft Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the European Union has finally been released. Unsurprisingly all the talk immediately afterwards was political, with ministers resigning and others said to be deeply concerned about the contents of the document. But what was in it for aviation?

Agreeing to what?

One thing is for sure. The 585 page PDF makes little mention of the ramifications for Europe’s air services Indeed the terms ‘air services’, ‘airline’ and ‘aviation’ appear just once while ‘air traffic’ and ‘EASA’ are not present at all. ‘Air’ gets a little more coverage, but almost exclusively in the context of environmental issues. That just leaves ‘airport’ which gets much more attention, almost all related to customs matters and the remainder dealing with specific arrangements in Gibraltar, Cyprus and Northern Ireland. So anyone expecting the document to provide total clarity for the aviation industry is going to be somewhat disappointed.

Some may have expected a lack of detail, while others might have assumed that this document would resolve the entire issue of Britain's divorce from the EU. Clearly anyone waiting for the latter was at best misguided, or even naive. Despite being rather scant on detail, the document does appear to propose both sides will continue to respect the common rules for operation of air services within the community - at least during a transition period that will last until December 2020. These long-standing aviation arrangements deal primarily with matters such as licencing of airlines, freedom of access for air carriers, and fare setting. The draft document also mentions a Council Directive covering access to the airport ground handling market and it also appears that the UK will remain committed to European rules on state aid to airlines and airports. But beyond that – there’s nothing else directly related to aviation.​

So the direction for the next year or two is a little clearer now, at least in some respects - it seems the proposal is for air services between EU countries and the UK to not be affected. But there is no mention of wider bilateral agreements with countries outside the UK. Whether those already set up by the EU will be recognised and applied equally to a stand-alone UK, remains open to conjecture - and it will be very much up to the other countries to decide that for themselves. For example, there is an ‘open skies’ arrangement between the EU and the USA which more or less allows airlines on both sides to fly between the two continents as they wish. Will the USA grant UK carriers those same freedoms – from day one, or in the future? It’s not a foregone conclusion, and the Draft Withdrawal Agreement does nothing to settle the matter. So while British Airways, Air France, easyJet, Lufthansa, Ryanair, et al will continue to be able to wing their way between Europe and the UK, it is by no means certain that British Airways and Virgin Atlantic will continue to have unfettered access to other parts of the world.​

The other side of the coin is freedom of movement, and on that score the Draft Withdrawal Bill is a little more forthcoming. The UK has never been part of the Schengen zone, so passports have always been a prerequisite to travel. And those arrangements will continue – passports or national identity cards, but not visas, for all EU citizens. So in theory intra-European air traffic levels should not decline. However, airline business remaining buoyant also depends on trade not declining, and that won’t be resolved until well into the transition period that commences next March and ends in December 2020.​

Another aspect worth mentioning is aviation licencing and safety. As part of the EU, Britain is a member of EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) which sets the regulatory standards for matters including pilot and engineer’s qualifications, training, aircraft certification and maintenance, air traffic control, and airfield management. The UK has already declared that it wishes to continue to be a member of EASA, observing all of its rules and guidelines. If that happens, then it follows that along with the wider right for citizens to live and work in an EU state – at least during the forthcoming transition period – UK aircrew will continue to be able to fly across Europe and work for its airlines. However, that’s just the regulatory aspects. The prov