To be able to fly across borders, there must be an agreement in place between the countries concerned. Britain has agreements with over 150 countries. Traditionally, these are extremely restrictive, governing down to individual flight slots for specified airlines. Far and away the most permissive and enabling is what we have secured within the European Union.
Today, any British airline can fly anywhere it likes in the EU. It can sell tickets to anyone across the 28 member states without restriction. It can fly not just to, but within another member state.
The EU’s single market with common rules for aviation (the European Common Aviation Area arrangements or “Single European Sky”) has enabled this.
Britain has the largest aviation network in Europe and the third largest in the world. This is not simply a matter of convenient travel – it is a vital economic sector, creating a million jobs, bringing in tax revenues and facilitating business links for our exporters. Airlines based in Britain can operate flights from, say, France to Germany without the aircraft ever touching down at a British airport. They can operate within, say, Italy between Milan and Naples. EasyJet, now the UK’s largest airline, wouldn’t even exist if it hadn’t been for the EU.
It’s not just about companies: the single market in aviation has transformed flying for consumers. Fares across Europe are down by around 40% in real terms, with greater choice and competition and new routes across the EU opening up all the time. British consumers have benefitted the most, representing a quarter of all European passengers.
And part of the deal for consumers is a common system of Passenger Rights. Airline passengers can claim compensation for delayed and cancelled flights anywhere in the EU. Airlines have a duty of care to delayed passengers. They also have to cater for the needs of disabled passengers and others in need of assistance.
Battles are still being fought with some airlines on how they apply these rules, and also on how they treat their own staff, but securing better conditions at European level is the best way to avoid them circumventing rules by basing themselves in the country with the lowest standards. The same is true about efforts to make transport in general, and airlines in particular, more energy efficient and environmentally sustainable, where EU cooperation on research, legislation and inspection all help.
All this is now in jeopardy. Unless the government negotiates a specific deal on this (or Britain changes its mind about Brexit), in a little over two years the UK will be out not just of the EU, but of the European single aviation market. With no automatic fall-back for the governance of aviation rights, and no World Trade Organisation framework in this field, there will be no legal right to operate flights to Milan, Munich, Malaga, Marseilles or anywhere else covered by the current EU-level framework. And in asking for a deal, we are the supplicants, asking for permission to still use this facility even though we are walking out of the club.
It is not just a matter of flying inside Europe. It is through the EU that we have secured beneficial deals with key countries across the world, not least the USA with which the EU has an “open skies” agreement enabling EU or US-based carriers to fly any transatlantic route between the two. This has been particularly beneficial to our non-London airports. Should we be forced to fall back on our previous agreement (the 1946 and 1977 Bermuda agreements) we would be lumbered with a document that would only allow a restricted number of airlines – and flights into London airports alone! So we will also need to negotiate – and negotiate quickly – a new deal with the USA and many other countries.
That’s just the start. There are other problematic consequences of Brexit:
- Britain is a member of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which deals with the safe operation of civil aviation. Having a common agency has reduced costs to governments and airlines, and enabled interoperability across the continent. The EASA sets the rules and regulations for safe flying in Europe, and its approval is necessary for aircraft to fly and airlines to operate. Leaving the EU means leaving the agency and this whole system, and setting up our own one, unless we can negotiate otherwise.
- There are significant implications for UK aerospace engineering and manufacturing, not least Airbus, if we are seen as a semi-detached entity. The trade/single market related parts of any Brexit deal are crucial here.
- There will be a need to reconfigure immigration reception at UK airports, where there will presumably no longer be an EU channel and any more restrictive regime will lengthen process times, and need expanded Border Force staff.
- Besides passengers, there are consequences for freight. If we leave the Customs Union, customs formalities and checks will add complexity and cost. Heathrow is currently the UK’s largest port. Other airports also derive much of their revenue from goods travelling on a just-in-time basis.
- Brexit could undermine the right of British airline passengers to claim compensation for delayed and cancelled flights under EU consumer protection legislation. John Hayes, the aviation minister, recently refused to pledge that the laws, enshrined in a regulation known as EU261, would remain in force after the United Kingdom left the EU
- It may also affect air traffic management services, with UK potentially excluded from the Single European Sky and SESAR (Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research) programme, both of which seek to increase safety, efficiency and capacity while reducing delays within European airspace. Britain has long promoted and championed these initiatives, but could now lose its place at the negotiating table in shaping future regulation, undermining a sector where it enjoys international leadership, and in the long term reducing its potential to improve the safety, efficiency and sustainability of airspace management.
Aviation is just one of the potential disasters that Brexit (assuming it proceeds) could cause, but a special one. Aviation agreements have always been treated separately from other trade agreements. We need replacement agreements and we need them quickly.
Airlines like EasyJet are already in the process of establishing a new and separate operations outside the UK to ensure that they can continue to operate as now. That is entirely understandable. But this will accentuate the economic losses to Britain.
What can we do? The government seems not to have a clue. Astonishingly, the White Paper does not give any information on this crucial point.
But the government must act. To avoid a cliff edge, the government must try to reach agreement on the air services market directly in the Article 50 “divorce” deal, or, failing that, secure a transitional period where the status quo applies pending negotiation of a new settlement. It must seek something similar from third countries with whom our agreements are currently via the EU.
In this, Britain needs to push for a deal that is as close as possible to what we have today. Securing agreement to fly to other EU countries from the UK should not be a problem, but we may have difficulty in securing a continued right for UK airlines to keep operating between other member states, let alone within them.
We should also seek to retain membership of the EASA. This will be tricky: leaving the EU means leaving its agencies, unless we can persuade other member states to allow a non-member to continue agency membership. It is possible that only observer status will be on offer, if that, with diminished influence within it (although our influence is likely to diminish anyway as a non-EU member). But the alternative – of setting up our own separate agency and negotiating equivalency agreements, would be costly, needlessly duplicative and would take considerable time.
We should aim to be part of the European common aviation area, which extends the liberalised aviation market beyond the EU and covers 36 countries, including Iceland and Norway. This would be easier than a bilateral air transport agreement, like Switzerland has. It is essential, however, to avoid slipping back with no deal at all and having to rely on age-old agreements that are no longer fit for the times that we fly in.
Whatever the reason for the referendum result, it was not to make flying more restrictive, with greater red tape, higher prices, or less choice for passengers. Surely, no one has a problem with one common set of standards across Europe when it comes to aviation safety.
But if we cannot secure a solution that isn’t costly and damaging to the British economy, and if this seems to be the case generally across other aspects of Brexit, we should have the courage to reconsider the whole question.