UK turns its back on European aviation

Photo from Pixabay

Aviation is a huge and successful industrial sector, directly contributing at least £22 billion to the UK economy. The British airline sector alone accounts for 84,300 jobs worldwide. Yet the ability to hop on a safe, reasonably affordable flight to almost anywhere in the world is relatively recent. Within living memory, overseas travel meant just that: travelling on an ocean liner that took weeks or months, not hours, to reach anywhere on the continent or the other side of the world.

We’ve come to expect a choice of dates, times, seats and levels of comfort, along with the full consumer experience whilst waiting in airport lounges. But all this is under threat from two sources. First, there is a worldwide slump in demand as a result of the coronavirus pandemic which, ironically, air travel helps to spread. Passengers are shunning planes for fear of contracting Covid-19 on board, or being caught up in quarantine either on holiday or when they return. Second, there is the looming deadline for the end of the transition period as Britain completes its departure from the European Union on 31st December, with or (increasingly likely) without a deal.

To understand why Brexit is such a major threat, we need to cast our minds back to that post-war era, when commercial travel was in its infancy.

Aviation Background

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has been in place since the late 1940s. It issues standards and recommended practices for each of its member states worldwide, but legislation is left to the individual countries. Under ICAO, each country has its own authority to oversee production of aircraft, spares, maintenance, licensing of pilots, air traffic control and engineers. These standards so set are not necessarily recognised by other countries with which they trade and may therefore require additional certification, training and qualification.

Enhancement of safety, reduced delays plus increased efficiency in the manufacturing industry was made possible in a Pan-European model within the scope of the four basic freedoms of the single market. The four Freedoms (of Movement, Capital, Goods and Services) were enshrined in the Treaty of Rome in 1957, and following treaties, which established the EU’s predecessor, the EEC.

The Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA), an associated body of the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC), represented states which had agreed to co-operate in developing and implementing common safety regulatory standards and procedures. The JAA was not a regulatory body, that task being achieved through the authorities of member states. After consultation, regulations were introduced to achieve uniformity between the participating states. The JAA was then responsible for publishing regulations governing operations such as maintenance, licensing and certification/design standards for all classes of aircraft.

These regulations, known as Joint Aviation Requirements (JARs), had no legal status until they were ratified by national governments. Many European countries adopted all or part of JARs as the basis for their own national regulations, benefitting from guidance, common certification and standards. The industry could train and acquire approvals and licences that were JAR-compliant under common respective certification. Over time, the industry across the EU and wider Europe became compliant with JARs, and the final step was to implement the European Aviation Safety Agency or EASA.

European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA)

With the creation of EASA, JARs were amended as necessary and brought into EU legislation, making them binding on all EU nations. EASA is an agency of the European Union and is responsible for safety and common standards both for the industry and the environment. This includes certification of parts, products, design, manufacture, the regulation and licensing of Air Traffic Control, pilots, engineers and the industry as a whole. It has ultimate responsibility for aviation safety in the EU and also has worldwide responsibilities. The National Aviation Authorities of the member states are accountable to EASA, which is an independent body, under the European Commission.

The most obvious benefits for passengers and aviation insiders are the enhancement of aviation safety across the EU and beyond, improved services, reduced costs and increased frequency of flights. These are also those most obviously at risk if the UK turns its back on EASA after the Brexit transition period.

Planning for Uncertainty

Bearing in mind that the industry is already under extreme pressure due to the present Covid-19 crisis, career planning and job retention are at the forefront of many people’s minds. The UK-CAA website is under constant review and sets out the complicated guidance for both ‘a no-deal’ and ‘with a deal’ conclusion of the transition period, perhaps including retention of EASA membership as a third country.

If the UK leaves the EU with ‘No-Deal for Aviation’, then all European certification stops, the UK becomes a ‘third country’ and will not participate in the benefits of EASA.

If the UK leaves the EU with ‘A Deal for Aviation’, which is the preferred option for the aviation industry, then the UK will benefit from stability and lower costs alongside continued harmonisation. However, the UK would no longer fully participate in decision making, as it would not be an EU member state.

Some UK operators are now making plans to retain oversight by EASA, which would allow flying to and from the UK as a third country, whilst remaining an EU airline operator. Some, like Easyjet, are changing their operation by seeking approvals under an authority inside the EU; British Airways is seen as a national carrier with UK registered aircraft, but under International Airlines Group (IAG) ownership; one option may be to have aircraft re-registered to the Spanish NAA; operators who have a percentage share in ownership by an EU member state retain their existing status, such as IAG which also owns Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus;  some flight crew are arranging to change their license from one issued by the UK, to one from an EU member state.

The whole industry, from manufacturers like Airbus, through to air traffic control, policy, flight training and numerous allied supportive industries, is affected by what happens in the next few months and is suffering expensive and distracting planning.

UK training organisations are considering the retention of EASA compliance to enable training for the European aviation industry.  Though expensive, this will avoid the limitations of ‘UK National Qualifications’ which would require costly conversion to EASA, just to maintain a trainee’s ‘pre-Brexit’ career opportunities.


Which way will this complex situation develop? Sadly, we really don’t know, as all that is on the table is UK contingency planning for ‘worst case’ and ‘marginally less worst case’ scenarios. As with all industries, stability is key and these political problems are unwelcome to the whole of the aviation industry.

Additionally, we have the world-wide pandemic, over which there is far less control. In the European region, there is a framework of disease mitigation set out by EASA and the NAAs. With the added advantage of harmonised regulation and licensing for the entire industry and support from the European Commission, European aviation looks set to recover. Demand from increased freight and passenger numbers will lead to new airlines and carriers to replace those sadly lost over the first half of 2020.

Aviation is principally about flight safety, efficiency and managing cost. Until this year, passengers have benefited from frequent, safe, low-cost flights as a direct result of the UK’s membership of EASA. The thriving aviation sector, including a vast employment market across the EU, has been open to those trained in the UK under a common Pan-European system. That, along with freedom of movement, has enabled career development across the whole continent with minimal complication.

How sad that UK politics has interfered to diminish the advances of the last half century, whilst reducing opportunity for this vital British industry, its staff and passengers.