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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 provision of services – such as a UK airline being able to have its aircraft repaired in [say] Bulgaria – is far from settled, and whether it will be as easy to arrange in future will only become clear during the transition negotiations.

Brave new world

All well and good then? Yes, maybe, sort of… The Draft Withdrawal Agreement is set to preserve our right to jet off to the Costas for our two weeks in the sun, or to make a one-day trip to Frankfurt on business. easyJet, Ryanair and Wizz Air will have opportunities to open routes from the UK to even more airports few people have ever heard of, and the airlines' staff will be able to operate the aircraft. British Airways might find it a tad more difficult to open a new service to the middle of the USA, but that’s a matter between the British and US governments. This certainly looks set to last until the end of the transition period in December 2020, by which time trade negotiations will have been completed and the longer term will be clearer. It could be nothing will change even then. Or maybe the aviation arrangements will change for the better - or worse - again. Some would day we're just buying into more uncertainty.

​All of this assumes that the Draft Withdrawal Agreement is approved by parliament, which is far from a foregone conclusion given all of the political wrangling going on at the moment. Many MPs – and their parties – have far bigger issues to concern themselves with than aviation, and our desire or need to travel is well down their list of priorities. We’ll only know whether the interim arrangements will stand in December, when the parliamentary vote takes place.​

And what about no deal? That is a much gloomier picture. No guaranteed rights for airlines to freely fly across Europe, no recognition of licences and safety standards. Every proposed new air route would need to be approved at both ends. The UK could be free from a pesky Irish airline trying to muscle in on its domestic market (not that it does much of that anymore), but on the other hand there could be massive cut backs to flights between the UK and mainland Europe – if any at all operate on day one. No deal is going to involve some very quick negotiating if we are to continue to enjoy the same freedom to move around by air as we do now.

Brexit was always a vote for self-government over community commonality – the chance to set the rules rather than work within them. But with that came uncertainty – EU laws were a known quantity, whereas Britain on its own could end up better or worse off than it is (was) as part of a bigger cooperative. We now have some short-term clarity on the aviation side. Assuming the UK continues headlong down the Brexit path, the Draft Withdrawal Agreement gives us some cause for comfort, even if it’s not ideal in all respects. There are two other alternatives – abandon Brexit or exit without a deal. One of those could have very significant adverse impacts on the UK’s aviation industry, and needs to be averted at all costs.

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