Ah, taking back control. Isn’t it marvellous? Only a week to go before Theresa May storms up to our soon-to-be ex’s lawyer and thrusts notice of divorce proceedings (demanding we keep the house, money, car, Costa del Sol holiday home, kids and dog) in the pocket of his shiny, European slim-fit suit. All sorted, yes?
Probably not, but panicking won’t help now – so why not take a moment to savour this blossoming (Great) British spring, enjoy some fresh air and take a few moments gazing to the heavens. Why not? Because the skies above us are a never-ending reflection of the Brexit nightmare we face on the ground.
Since the early 1990s air travel around Europe has become more simple and less expensive – the direct result of deregulation by the EU, which abolished rafts of bilateral deals between individual nations and instead merged them all into one agreement between member states. That movement removed numerous passenger and service restrictions, increasing competition and thus driving down prices. Low-cost airlines flourished, and Europe became more open than ever before. Damn that EU red tape, right?
Now the UK has chosen to veer off course, there are three main options for aviation deals with the EU – all of which are essentially mile-high versions of every other trade agreement now up for grabs.
Firstly, the UK can continue with its membership of the European Common Aviation Area, which would provide continued access to the European Single Aviation Market. Secondly, the UK can negotiate a bespoke deal with the EU, similar to the Open Skies agreement we are currently part of between Europe and the US. Like the deregulation of two decades ago, this resulted in pushing competition up and fares down, but post-Brexit the UK could end up on the outside of this deal.
Finally, there’s aviation’s own “nuclear option” – leaving the EU with no deal and starting the long process of individually-negotiated deals country by country.
Option one, retaining membership of the ECAA, also requires acceptance of all EU aviation law and the European courts – something Theresa May has already proclaimed to be a “red line”.
Therefore option two would seem the next best deal, but would still leave us out the loop when it came to trans-Atlantic flights – we may have to wave goodbye to Ryanair’s budget flights to New York before we even got the chance to say céad míle fáilte (the fact they are in partnership with Norwegian Air could further complicate matters depending on the exit deal).
So what does it really mean for the industry? In the short-term, the best case scenario is to maintain existing arrangements until a new deal or deals are reached. But if opting for individual bilateral agreements in the long-term, the industry will not only have to undergo the costly and laborious process of negotiating deals with individual nations inside the EU and out, it will also have no influence on EU aviation regulations, which it will still have to comply with when flying into and out of the bloc.
And for holiday-makers? Like many scenarios post-Brexit the impact will not be immediately obvious, but rising fares are one unwelcome result, and a return to 1980s bilateral restrictions and regulations is surely bad for all concerned. Having said that, if the laptop and tablet ban spreads it might give air travel something of a vintage feel anyway. What’s showing on that big drop-down TV in the aisle?
PS – European aviation law is one of the strongest obstacles to airport expansion. Hillingdon, home to Heathrow airport, was one of the few London boroughs to vote leave. Just saying.