Don’t Panic! seems to be the message from the UK’s Transport Department as Brexit deadline looms

The UK Department for Transport has issued a set of “technical notes” or guidelines on what will happen to air services to and from the UK in the event of there being “no Brexit deal” (i.e. the UK simply walks away from the European Union). In such a case binding agreements that have governed air travel in Europe will cease to apply, from the end of Mar-2019. The guidelines are intended “to inform air passengers, the aviation industry and the general public” and it suggests actions that the industry and the general public should take.


  • The UK Department for Transport (DfT) has issued guidelines in the event of the country leaving the European Union without a Brexit ‘deal’;
  • It is partly intended to counter statements being issued by many individual enterprises that are creating significant public anxiety and misinformation;
  • In the majority of cases there will actually be little or no change from current air transport arrangements;
  • The main area of contention is whether the UK will conclude an air service agreement with the EU as a separate party or individually with countries.

The DfT has done this for several reasons.  The public has the right to know of course and all government departments are drawing up such documents in their own areas for public dissemination. But it is surely more the case that the government wants to send out a ‘don’t panic’ message to reassure the public that contingency plans are at hand and have been drawn up for some time already, which is certainly true.

It is a necessary message because a number of airlines continue to send out those of their own, for their own reasons, painting a picture of potential total breakdown of the air transport system, with aircraft being unable to take to the air. It is a very serious business and such statements do not help. All British police forces have been required to draw up strategic plans for a breakdown of law and order in the final run up to and aftermath of Brexit. The Armed Forces probably have been too, though that would never be disclosed.

CHART – The UK air passenger transport sector has grown by almost a third in terms of system capacity between 2012 and 2017 and is forecast to rise +3.3% year-on-year in 2018Source: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG 

So what does the DfT have to say in its guidance? Well, it describes a scenario in which the UK leaves the EU without agreement (a ‘no deal’ scenario) as “unlikely” given the mutual interests of the UK and the EU in securing a negotiated outcome. But, as we approach Mar-2019, it says preparations for a no deal scenario “have to be accelerated”, something which “does not reflect an increased likelihood” of a ‘no deal’ outcome, rather about ensuring “plans are in place” in the unlikely scenario that they need to be relied upon.

The current legislation allows any airline licensed by an EU country to operate any route within the EU without the advance permission of individual national authorities. These entitlements also extend to countries that are members of the European Economic Area (EEA).

Separately, the UK has independently negotiated 111 bilateral air service agreements (ASAs) with countries including China, India and Brazil. There are a further 17 non-EU countries with which air services to the UK are provided for by way of EU membership and associated agreements. These are Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Canada, Georgia, Iceland, Israel, Jordan, Kosovo, Liechtenstein, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Morocco, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and the United States.

CHART – More than three quarters of the system capacity from the UK is into the European marketSource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG (data: w/c 24-Sep-2018)

The DfT explains that if the UK leaves the EU in Mar-2019 with no agreement in place, UK and EU licensed airlines “would lose the automatic right to operate air services between the UK and the EU without seeking advance permission”. This would mean that airlines operating between the UK and the EU would need to “seek individual permissions to operate”. EU-licensed airlines would lose the ability to operate wholly within the UK (for example from Heathrow to Edinburgh) and UK-licensed airlines would lose the ability to operate intra-EU air services (for example from Milan to Paris).

Far from any doomsday scenario predicted by some airline bosses, the DfT notes  that in this scenario “the UK would envisage granting permission to EU airlines to continue to operate” and “would expect EU countries to reciprocate in turn”. It believes it would “not be in the interest” of any EU country or the UK to restrict the choice of destinations that could be served, though it identifies that if such permissions are not granted, “there could be disruption to some flights”.

The DfT says that to ensure permissions were granted and flights continued, the UK’s preference would be to agree a basic arrangement or understanding on a multilateral basis between the UK and the EU. In other words to arrange for a continuation of services with the UK in a “bilateral agreement” with the whole of the EU.

Alternatively, the DfT says bilateral arrangements between the UK and individual EU countries could be put in place, specifying the conditions under which air services would be permitted. By definition any such agreement would be reciprocal in nature, it adds. The European Commission has previously acknowledged that a ‘bare bones’ agreement on air services would be desirable in the event of the UK leaving with ‘no deal’. In the scenario where a provisional deal is agreed for air services, airlines would continue to be required to apply for associated permissions to fly.

Clearly these things take time so the earlier the decision on whether or not a Brexit ‘deal’ would be signed the better, but that is dependent on a myriad of factors and, bluntly, some of them are far graver than the needs of the aviation industry. Contingency plans are almost certainly in place already, with key economic partners at least, to instigate individual ASAs prior to 29-Mar-2019 if a multilateral agreement with the EU was obviously not going to happen.

The DfT guidelines cover many other areas with a general ‘no change’ outlook. These include operating licences; slot allocation (no change, covered by the domestic Withdrawal Act); air traffic management (no change, governed by the Chicago Convention and the UK would remain a member of EUROCONTROL); passenger rights (no change, covered by the Withdrawal Act); and aviation safety (EU aviation safety legislation would be retained and again applied by the UK as domestic law, through the provisions of the Withdrawal Act. No change at all for airports).

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