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Many things are changing in UK and European aviation these days. The slowdown, changing restrictions, and financial difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic may be the most noticeable at the moment, but longer-term Brexit will have a lasting impact. It will affect airline setup, operations, and passenger experience – but not as dramatically as if no deal had been reached in Brexit.


Changes to airline permitted routes and operations

Where we see airlines flying will change. Before Brexit, both UK and EU-based airlines were able to operate flights across all countries. Post-Brexit, so-called fifth freedom rights will be removed.

This means that UK-based airlines cannot operate flights between European cities, and European ones cannot fly domestically in the UK. This does not affect cargo flights – only passenger flights.

This affects airlines’ flexibility in route scheduling and in making connections. In practice, though, it makes little difference for commercial airlines. Most airlines that need to have already established subsidiaries to handle such operations and make flight planning as smooth as possible.

Airlines will be more focused on their own territory

Brexit has led to significant changes in airline ownership rules. Going forward, airlines from the UK and Europe must be owned and effectively controlled by UK or European nationals, respectively. They must also be based and licensed in their own territory.

An exception has been put in place for UK airlines. An airline that held an operating license at the end of the Brexit transition period can still be treated as a UK airline if it is owned and controlled by EU nationals. This is really just to deal with the ownership structure of British Airways and its European parent company IAG. In the future, this sort of structure or ownership will not be permitted. This could well impact the potential industry consolidation that some people expect as we emerge from the pandemic.

In addition, the rights of airlines to lease aircraft from each other have been tightened. This primarily affects wet leasing of aircraft and crew from another airline. Post-Brexit, UK airlines are permitted to lease from UK or EU operators. EU airlines can only lease within the EU. This will restrict operations and limit options for managing disruption.

More complications and delays for passengers

Some of the most significant long-term changes from Brexit will be on passengers. The free movement of people between the UK and Europe has ended. While the UK was never a member of the Schengen travel zone, UK citizens did have the right to travel and work in the EU – and vice-versa.

Restrictions will now apply. UK citizens, for example, can now only spend 180 days each year in Europe. They will need a visa to stay for longer than this or to work.

What does this mean for the travel industry and travel experience? Airlines will have to carry out additional checks on passengers and their documentation. Passengers may also need a visa or visa waiver (all UK citizens will need an ETIAS waiver from 2022), adding cost and complexity to travel. The airport experience will also be slower, with more identity and passport checks required.

Separate laws and regulations

Following Brexit, the UK is no longer part of EU aviation institutions, including the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). EU law no longer applies in the UK, and this will affect many areas.

So far, most areas of safety, aircraft maintenance, and registration have been adopted in UK law. Airlines will need to stay aware of laws and changes in both jurisdictions, however.

This also affects passenger regulations. The primary legislation that deals with handling and compensation in case of denied boarding, cancellation, or delays are the EU261/2004 regulations. Similar rules and compensation levels (in GBP) have been included in UK law following Brexit. However, passengers need to be aware that treatment and handling will differ between jurisdictions and that there could be differences introduced in the future.

Challenges for pilots

Pilot licensing is one area where EASA and legal changes are having a significant impact. Following Brexit, a UK-based pilot must hold a European license to operate an EU-registered aircraft and vice-versa.

There are some rules in place to help existing pilots convert licenses. Going forward, though, new pilots will need to decide whether to obtain licenses in the UK or Europe. Any examinations taken in 2021 and beyond need to be conducted in an EASA country for an EU license.

The challenges of this are already being seen. As just one example, Ryanair’s subsidiary Lauda Europe recently advertised for London-based pilots, but with a requirement for an EASA license (its A320s are registered in Malta).

Final Thoughts

Airlines and passengers will need to adapt to several new restrictions and ways of traveling. Ultimately, these will lead to less flexibility for airlines and potentially more costly operations.

Luckily, a “no-deal” Brexit was avoided. This would have brought even more changes and stricter restrictions.

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