Although the negotiations over the access to European markets after Britain leaves the EU are just starting, several airlines operating in the UK have already expressed deep concern and plan to move some – or all – business to continental Europe. easyJet has already obtained an Austrian air operator's certificate (AOC), and Ryanair has been quoted to look into the possibility of moving shop. So, what does the post-Brexit world hold for airlines?


The (un)open skies

The European Union and the United States signed Open Skies agreement in 2007, allowing US and EU carriers to freely fly from any airport in the US or the EU to any airport on the other side of the Atlantic.

For instance, other non-EU countries like Switzerland only have seven of the nine freedoms of the air granted to them. It is missing the right of an airline to operate between points in two countries on services which lie entirely outside its own home country, meaning its planes must always either depart from or arrive at a Swiss airport.

International air transport has, until recently, been one of the most restrictive and highly regulated industries in the world. The Chicago Convention of 1944 laid the foundation that established the international bilateral air services agreements (BASAs) system, which presently continues to govern most of the world’s trade in aviation. In essence, BASAs or bilaterals are the building blocks of the bilateral framework that specify market access provisions. Typically, BASAs stipulate which airlines may operate between two countries, the routes they may serve, traffic rights, frequency and capacity (seats) limitations, and they often place controls over airline pricing.

Therefore, when the UK leaves the EU, it will have to make sure to sustain the freedoms, although it might be not as easy as it sounds. If the UK is not granted all of them, foreign carriers, Ryanair for instance, won’t be able to fly inner routes in the UK.

What this agreement means for the European Union and the United States is much more than hassle-free operations. Open skies not only opened air routes but also brought new destinations and lower prices for travelers, opening up the opportunities to a wider public. For the UK in particular, the agreement also meant liberating the international skies from the BA and Virgin duopoly, as they were the only UK airlines that had permission to operate UK-US routes. 

Now, after the UK leaves the European Union it will no longer be covered by the agreement, meaning that new terms and conditions have to be negotiated.

Keeping in mind what is at stake, UK carriers are naturally concerned. “It’s in Europe’s interest to have a fully liberalised aviation agreement. 900 million travellers each year have benefitted from open skies in Europe,” a representative for International Airlines Group, which owns British Airways, has told AeroTime in an email. “That not only benefits customers but creates jobs and wealth. We are confident that a comprehensive air transport agreement between the EU and the UK will be reached.”


Ryanair preparing to wave good-bye?

Ryanair states it might cancel flights and move at least some of the UK-based aircraft to continental Europe if there is no clarity on whether UK remains covered the EU Open Skies agreement. The news comes in as part of Ryanair’s Q1 financial announcement.