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1st Aug 2021

Flights to EU at risk if no Brexit deal, airlines warn

  • O'Leary: "There is a real prospect of no flights between the UK and Europe for weeks, or months" (Photo: Nelson L.)

Aviation executives warned MEPs on Tuesday (11 July) that Brexit could mean serious disruption to flights between the UK and the EU 27 if there was no agreement on the UK remaining part of Europe’s open skies policy.

The chief executive of Irish low-cost airline Ryanair, Michael O'Leary, spelled out a dark future to the transport committee of the European Parliament.

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He said flights between the UK and Europe could come to a halt for several months in case of a hard Brexit.

“There is a real prospect of no flights between the UK and Europe for weeks, or months,” O’Leary said.

The European Union liberalised its aviation market 25 years ago, allowing EU carriers to fly to any airport within the bloc. This opened up the business to low cost carriers, as it created more choices for consumers.

Travellers took advantage: In 1992, 360 million passengers flew within the EU. That figure now stands at over 900 million a year.

If Brexit takes place by March 2019 as planned, that would mean that Britain would probably leave the European Common Aviation Area, as the British government does not want to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which governs the policy, however.

Aviation representatives warned MEPs that there would be no World Trade organisation (WTO) rules to fall back on in the area of aviation, as there are in other sectors.

Booking starts

The clock is ticking quickly.

Without a newly negotiated deal between the UK and the EU to replace the open skies policy, nobody knows what woud happen in March 2019.

The aviation and tourism industries are worried as passengers usually start booking their holidays and trips a year before travelling.

That means the sector would need certainty, possibly in a form of an agreement between the EU and the UK, already early next year.

Ryanair’s chief said Britons would wake up to the hard truth when, in September 2018, they tried to book their holidays for next year.

“UK voters will realise that they can drive to Scotland or get a ferry to Ireland for their holidays,” he argued, saying no airlines would be able to fly if there was no deal.

"It is delusional to think a deal will be done, they [the UK government] have no idea what they want, other than leaving the ECJ,” O’Leary said.

"If there is no deal, there are no flights, there is no mechanism,” O'Leary said.

Quick deal

Other aviation executives also called for a quick deal between the EU and the UK on open skies.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of IAG, one of the world’s largest airline groups, said the EU and UK should sign a comprehensive air transport agreement to maintain consumer benefits.

He said that would allow airlines all the existing freedoms in the air and clarify that airlines could be owned by either UK or EU firms.

John Holland-Kaye, CEO of Heathrow Airport, said that Brexit negotiators should prioritise aviation in the second phase of the talks on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

He added negotiators should come to a transitional agreement in 2018 to “maintain today’s arrangements as long as possible”.

“Maintaining the status quo on the European aviation market is in the interest of Britain and the rest of the EU,” he told MEPs.

Franck Goldnadel, an executive with the Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, said airports and airline operators needed “as much time as possible” to adapt to any new rules, but at least a year or two.

But O'Leary argued that there would be no good will for a bilateral agreement allowing the UK back into open skies as German and French competitors would want to take advantage of the situation.

He said bluntly: “when Germans and the French have a chance to stick it to the UK”, they use it.

Halt unlikely

Other aviation executives did not think a complete halt was likely, as both the EU and the UK were interested in avoiding big disruptions that could mean job losses.

Ralf Pastleitner, an official with the TUI Group, a tourism company said an estimated €21 billion would be lost in tourism in the case of a hard Brexit.

He said the five top destinations from the UK - France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece - could suffer the most.

In 2016, there were 2.5 million travellers from Britain to Greece alone, he noted.

Pastleitner said it was not just a British, but a European problem, if there was no accord.

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