Major continental European airlines are actively lobbying their governments to make the UK aviation sector’s exit from the European Union (EU) difficult, the CEO of Irish low-cost carrier (LCC) Ryanair said Aug. 2.

Michael O’Leary claimed that carriers such as Air France and Lufthansa would be happy to see services disrupted between the UK and the rest of Europe for a period of weeks or months, in order to damage UK carriers such as British Airways and UK LCC easyJet.

The damage suffered by major European carriers if there was a major disruption of flights would be relatively small, but much more extensive for UK airlines, O’Leary said. Those would include Ryanair, which has a major network of routes between the UK and the rest of Europe.

The European airlines—he named Air France, Lufthansa and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), among others—aimed to achieve this by lobbying for tough conditions to replace the EU Open Skies agreement which the UK, as matters currently stand, will have to exit when it leaves the EU in March 2019.

An agreement on air services will have to be agreed to by September 2018 at the latest, as airlines publish their schedules a year ahead and autumn of that year will be the last available date for any changes.

“The Europeans seem, to my mind, to be hell-bent on making the UK suffer and aviation will be the first [sector in which this will happen].”

O’Leary said he had seen briefing documents from major EU airlines urging their respective governments to press for exit conditions that, inter alia, enshrined the continuing jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on aviation matters.

Pro-Brexit politicians in the UK have made escaping from ECJ jurisdiction a “red line” policy. O’Leary said that UK politicians would either have to walk away from a deal and risk major disruption to flights, or row back on their beliefs. He believed the latter course was more likely.

Over the past year, Ryanair has repeatedly warned of a “cliff-edge scenario” in which all flights between the UK and Europe cease for weeks or months following the UK exit, as those services would no longer be covered by international treaty.

O’Leary said in London Aug. 2 that he still detected no urgency on the part of the UK government to solve the problem. There was a general attitude of “everything will be fine,” he said.

He admitted that, if he was in the EU airlines’ shoes, he would probably be taking the same attitude.

In a response, Air France said that “Ryanair’s allegations do not reflect the reality. Our position is to ask the European Commission to ensure that the access to the single European air transport market is conditional on the acceptance by the UK carriers of its rules. They cannot claim more advantageous or different rules than those applicable to the European carriers.

“Air France-KLM is in favor of the UK and the EU agreeing on an aviation deal, which is fair for both sides, instead of favorable for just one side.

“Any deal cannot be more favorable for UK carriers than for EU carriers, which would be the case if, e.g., certain EU passenger rights or environmental regulations would only apply to the EU carriers and not to UK carriers.”

Responses from Lufthansa and SAS had not been received by press time.

Alan Dron