The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Denis MacShane, the UK’s former minister for Europe and author of Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (IB Tauris)

UK based airlines will face serious problems sorting out their flying rights when the UK leaves the Single Market and Customs Union. Ryanair has announced it will put a clause in the tickets it will be selling for 2019 saying the ticket will be invalid if there is no UK-EU deal on flying. Ryanair carried 130 million passengers across Europe who will wake up the the threat Brexit may cause their holidays and other travel.

On BBCRadio5 Live today Ryanair’s Chief Marketing Officer Kenny Jacobs warned that “planes might be grounded” if there was no agreement between London and Brussels to protect passengers booking flights after B-Day on 29 March 2019.

The BBC reporter Sean Farrington covering the story said all airlines were worried if “no trade deal” was able to be negotiated ahead of Britain fully leaving the EU.

Unfortunately if understandably the short-hand reference to a “trade deal” is wrong. The right to fly in and out of countries is based on a set of bi-lateral Government-2-Government treaties. Aviation is not covered by free trade deals or the World Trade Organisation. In the case of the UK it is the EU that represents Britain and all 28 member states in terms of aviation landing rights. The US has around 140 bi-lateral aviation treaties – the biggest being with the EU. UK rights to fly into countries are governed by more than 50 EU treaties.

The UK’s Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, an obsesssive anti-European, has so far been rebuffed when he pleaded with Washington to simply cut and paste the EU-US bilateral agreement to extend existing rights to airlines like British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and the low-cost Norwegian flying directly from Britain to American cities.

When asked about Financial Times reports on this problem at an aviation industry conference in Brussels earlier his week, Willie Walsh, the BA boss attacked the paper calling it “Fake Times.” He insisted UK negotiators would find solutions. When pressed on how this would be achieved, Walsh replied: “Magic.”

Perhaps BA will commission JK Rowling to write a new Hogwarts volume called “Harry Potter, British Airway and Brexit.”

For Ryanair and other low-cost airlines the problem is different. Mrs May said last Friday in her Mansion House speech that the UK would remain members of EU regulatory agencies, notably the European Air Safety Agency. This week, the EU’s Donald Tusk ruled this out.

So Britain faces massive costs in setting up new regulatory and safety agencies for industries like flying, chemical and medicines. This will take time and are not part of what the BBC’s Sean Farrington referred to as a “trade deal.” It is indeed possible for what is called a BASA – a Basic Air Safety Agreement – to be agreed between the UK and the US and between the UK and the EU. This should allow flights to continue post-Brexit.

But it means the UK will lose core rights like cabotage – the right to pick up and fly passengers (or cargo) between EU destinations not just to and from Britain. It also means the UK loses all influence over EU aviation policy as UK ministers and officials will cease taking part in the decision-making process of the Commission and Council of Ministers.

An added problem is the obligation for airlines wanting to fly between European desinations to have at least 50 per cent ownership in an EU country. That’s easy for Ryanair but less so for Easyjet whose Luton base north of London will be weakened.

Time to fasten seat belts. And some Ryanair passengers may well ask: Is it all worth it?

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