ATW Editor's Blog

Brexit teeters on chaos and still no air transport plan

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No deal, botched deal, backstop. Brexit, a word not coined just a few short years ago, has become a common noun with its own set of adjectives and adverbs.

For all the drama flowing out of London today as UK prime minister Theresa May laid out the government’s draft plan for exiting the European Union (EU), there was scant more clarity on what will happen to the country’s air transport industry on March 29, 2019.

Although fury on all sides of Parliament and across Brexit supporters and opposers may have slightly elevated the possibility of a second referendum, May made clear in a press conference late Nov. 15 that she intends to deliver on the vote of the people. “We will leave the EU on March 29,” she said.

Between now and then, however, May will need to hold on to her leadership and get her Brexit plan through parliament. At this stage, the prospects look challenging at best. And the chances of a “no-deal” Brexit seem to have heightened, which is a nightmare for airlines, airports and the traveling public.

Anyone who previously could not imagine air travel between the UK and its continental neighbors flying into a bureaucratic black hole is now looking at that prospect via a draft plan that offers almost no more answers than were available right after the referendum result in June 2016.

The draft plan tries to reassure the public that in the case of a “no-deal”, visas will not be required by UK and EU citizens traveling between their nations “for short-term” visits. For many people, however, it will come as a shock to realize that visas will be needed at all, particularly among those who routinely work or vacation across the borders (and who include many in the aerospace industry). And what is a “short” term? Many Brits and Europeans own properties either side of the English Channel, enjoy weeks-long vacations, or are retired and switch between homes. Even the most weather-hardened Brit may balk at the idea of spending more than a week on an English beach when they could be in Provence, Tuscany or Marbella for a month.

How will customs and immigration queues be managed once the “EU only” channels are no longer available to UK citizens? If air travel becomes more difficult, requiring visas, long lines and multi security points, how many people will reduce their flying? And how damaging would that be to an industry that has already seen several airlines go out of business since the Brexit vote?

More fundamentally, where are the details of agreed plans to continue current, or implement new, cross-border air services? Or the plan to continue mutually-recognized safety and certification standards that fall under EASA?

Understandably, the public’s focus of the draft plan has fallen on what have always been the most contentious areas of Brexit—the Irish border and the size of the “divorce” payment to the EU. But this means that once again, and despite increasingly urgent calls from the commercial air transport industry, there seems to be no forward movement on this front.

The British have famously adopted the phrase “keep calm and carry on”. But you can’t just “carry on” an air service agreement if it becomes void, as the UK's part of the EU liberalized air agreement will become on March 29.

An emergency meeting will be held in Brussels Nov. 25 to sign off on the Brexit plan and then it will be back to London, likely in early December, to see whether Members of Parliament say yay or nay. Regardless, transport and trade ministers, civil servants and industry regulators are going to have just three months to sort out the big air service questions. They may want to cancel any Christmas plans.

Karen Walker karen.walker@informa.com

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