Usually, Athar Husain Khan is very diplomatic, measuring and weighing his words carefully when describing a challenging situation. But when asked whether Brexit was as disruptive as some had predicted, the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) secretary-general was unequivocal and atypically blunt.
“Yes, it was pretty disruptive even though it did not hit the headlines every day,” he told AIN. “I think as EBAA we were ahead of the curve and we were able to sensitize the membership that the UK's complete exit from the European Union and EASA was coming, and we alerted them with information sessions on where we thought the risks were, for instance with the registration of aircraft or licenses of pilots.”
But, he admitted, some issues were just not foreseeable. One of them was the difference in the way the UK and a number of EU countries dealt with granting third- and fourth-freedom rights and all-cargo fifth-freedom rights. “There was a divergence which frankly was detrimental for our entire ecosystem. Operators were facing an administrative and legal nightmare,” Husain Khan noted.
The UK put a so-called "block permit" scheme in place, allowing EU airlines to operate any number of ad-hoc passenger and cargo flights between the UK and the EU state where that operator is licensed. The mechanism was designed to eliminate the need to apply for single permits per flight and would see the automatic renewal of the block permit after three months—starting April 1—conditional on the respective EU country giving the same deal to UK operators.
However, not all EU countries were responding with the expected reciprocal deal. “This was not always out of ill-will,” an EBAA spokesperson noted. “Often the national aviation authorities did not have the legal framework in place to be able to offer something equivalent.”
The issue risked escalating in April but appears to have calmed down. About half of the EU member states—including Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden—have either introduced a block-permit process covering third/fourth-freedom operations for UK airlines or are negotiating such an agreement with the UK Department for Transport. Some bilateral deals, such as UK-Malta, also include the exchange of fifth freedom on nonscheduled flights and cargo flights.
Most EU operators faced certain complexities or delays due to the renewal or refusal of new block permits, though the situation was quickly resolved on the German level, asserted Siegfried Axtmann, chairman and founder of Nuremberg, Germany-headquartered FAI Aviation Group. The company, which offers fixed-wing air ambulance, private jet charter, and aircraft management service, was not affected, he said, stressing that “our medevac business continued as before Brexit.”
Overall, he sees no advantage or disadvantage arising from Brexit for FAI. “We never flew a lot within the UK, so the loss of UK cabotage rights does not represent a handicap for us. Likewise, I do not see more intra-EU flying coming our way because UK operators lost the right to operate within the EU,” Axtmann noted.
UK-registered airlines that performed a lot of intra-EU flying pre-Brexit anticipated the upcoming restrictions and decided to secure an EU air operator certificate (AOC) ahead of the end of the transition period, which falls on Jan. 1, 2021. Independent charter company Air Charter Scotland, for instance, decided last year to put two of the 10 business aircraft in its fleet on the Maltese register to be able to continue flying between the 27 EU states.
The Glasgow-based company now has a Cessna Citation CJ3+ based in Malta and a Bombardier Challenger 350 at Nice in southern France. It also employs three flight crew residing in the EU to support the aircraft, which was formerly based in the UK.
The UK-EU divorce challenged the status quo of open skies, from one day to the next, “but in the practical application of that the Covid-19 related travel restrictions have almost suppressed some of the bigger impact of Brexit,” contended James Foster, COO of Vertis Aviation, a Swiss-based charter broker with offices in Ireland, Switzerland, and the UK. “There is less traffic anyway, particularly in the leisure market, which means that we have not felt the impact as much as we would have done in a normal year.
“That is not to say that there have been no logistical or paperwork issues owing to Brexit. It is adding an additional complication to delivering what are the benefits of business aviation, which is able to react quickly, efficiently,” he added, pointing to the challenges to find an operator with the right permission and aircraft registration to fly from and to the relevant destinations. “Twelve months ago, we would not have to consider this.”
While the pandemic is masking the full impact of Brexit, it also helped prepare for Brexit, Foster alleged. “In spring last year, we had to deal with short-notice travel Covid-19-related restrictions; flights between Italy and the UK or between France and the UK were suddenly not possible. It was sort of a rehearsal for short-notice travel restrictions due to Brexit.”
Axtmann’s main concern is not Brexit but the traffic recovery from Covid-19. “Our core charter jet business is long and ultra-long-distance flights. I cannot confirm that I see a recovery to 2019 levels in the second half of this year as long as North America, most of South America, and Africa maintain their travel bans,” he concluded.