Brexit, the political process that saw the “British Exit” from the European Union after a 2016 vote and that finally became reality in January 2020, has presented a worry for the aviation industry in both the UK and Europe. Even trying to put to one side the bitter “Remain” versus “Leave” hardline positions that still divide British voters, little doubt remains that Brexit has complicated trading conditions for original equipment manufacturers, airlines, airports, and MROs in both the UK and the EU. More particularly, the process for issuing approvals and licenses will likely remain complicated for some time to come.
Given the intense political divisions over Brexit in the UK, most aviation executives have shown reluctance to comment publicly on what it has meant for the industry. However, speaking off the record, many are clearly unhappy that the treatment of the sector has taken place along political lines rather than with the practical considerations so important to the smooth running of the aviation complex.
The hopes of Britain’s airlines and other aviation companies that the UK would remain a member of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) would be dashed. “Exit Day” took place on January 31, 2020, followed by a transition period through December 31 of that year, when EASA membership ended. A Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) took effect at the beginning of 2021 and provided protocols that would oversee commercial relations between the UK and the EU, including a 26-page section on aviation.
The UK’s departure from EASA was not inevitable and could have been avoided if the UK’s Conservative government had made concessions that would have allowed for a so-called soft rather than hard Brexit resolution. In the period between the referendum in June 2016 and the final resolution of the UK’s Brexit settlement with the EU in December 2019, widespread consensus and expectations within the industry seemed to indicate it would remain an EASA member state, with minimal disruption.
In March, at the annual conference of the British Business & General Aviation Association, the group’s chief executive, Marc Bailey, said that the loss of mutual UK-EU license acceptance from next January would undoubtedly worsen existing skills shortages, mainly for British aviation companies.
“Without doubt, there has been an impact because positions have hardened [between the UK and the EU],” Bailey commented. “We expected to see bilateral agreements [on immigration and recognition of qualifications] coming to fruition in a couple of years; it’s not at the UK Civil Aviation Authority and EASA, but at a political level that there is not a will to have them take place, so progress on agreements has been weaker than a lot of us would have hoped.”
Simon Phippard, a lawyer at the London office of Bird & Bird, told AIN that the loss of EASA membership had proved a source of consternation to the UK aviation industry, even though the transition period allowed for mutual recognition of certificates, approvals, and licenses until the end of 2022. He said that would effectively mean a dual licensing or dual compliance regime in the future.
“The classic example would be a European maintenance provider that held an EASA Part 145 certificate, and among its customers were UK registered airlines,” he said. “It would no longer be able to continue providing those functions unless it also acquired a UK Part 145 approval.
“Similarly, if you hold a commercial pilot license or an air transport pilot licence issued by France, Germany, or Lithuania, for example, under the EASA system, you could exercise those privileges on a UK-registered aircraft, just as you could on an Italian or Spanish aircraft. That will come to an end [at the end of the year].”
In Phippard’s view, the changes that the UK has made had less to do with mutual recognition between the EU and the UK than with the UK fixing the consequences of leaving EASA. “It’s the UK making sure that it’s got all the processes in place to enable the right people to get the right licenses from the UK,” he said. “As we go into the summer, there may be fingers crossed that we don’t have a two-month lapse over the holiday period, with people suddenly realizing in October that they’ve got to get license applications in.”
However, Brexit did not necessarily lead to recent acute delays at British airports, he added. “I don’t believe the current reports of troubles with air transport delivery are a result of post-Brexit licensing changes,” noted Phippard. “That, I think, is a post-Covid skills retention or skills recovery issue rather than a licensing issue.”
For the 18 months since the UK’s EASA membership terminated, the UK has continued to recognize EASA licenses, but the reverse has not been the case, Phippard explained. At present, the substantive regulations in the UK almost mirror those of EASA, but with changes to reflect the fact that a national Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) now regulates UK civil aviation, not EASA. Debate continues over whether the UK CAA is sufficiently staffed and funded to carry out its remit.
Despite the changes, Phippard said he sees no obvious pitfalls facing the UK aviation industry beyond 2022. “I think in regulatory terms, we generally know what we’re looking at,” he said. “The licensing requirements are clear. The traffic rights piece between the EU and UK is settled. We anticipated that it would be full third and fourth freedom rights: no limits on tariffs, frequency, schedules, all that kind of thing. As you know, there are some old--fashioned services agreements out there where it’s all very prescriptive.
“That’s not the case between the UK and the EU. If an airline has its operating license and AOC, it can operate flights across the Channel, and there’s no time limit on that. One possibility might have been that contingency measures would have been put in place: ‘We’ll agree to traffic rights for five years and give ourselves time to work something out.’ That didn’t happen. The TCA is open-ended.”
ADS, a trade organization representing companies in the UK aerospace, defense, security, and space sectors, said that Brexit had not presented its only concern of late, with Covid-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine posing the biggest problems in the past two years.
“Following the UK’s exit from the European Union, it is crucial that the UK and EU work together to solve outstanding technical issues, such as those around tariffs on raw materials crossing to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, recognition by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency of UK maintenance approvals, and UK association to Horizon Europe,” a spokesperson told AIN.
For now, the UK faces exclusion from the EU’s Horizon Europe funding program for research and innovation and its budget of €95.5 billion ($102.5 billion). In response to the UK government’s declared intention to unilaterally renege on its agreement over Northern Ireland’s border with EU member Ireland, the European Commission says British companies cannot participate.
UK aircraft and equipment manufacturers now must seek type certification through the CAA, with a view to attaining subsequent approval from Europe’s EASA air safety regulator, adding bureaucracy and cost. However, the government’s declared doctrine of being a “rule-maker, not a rule-taker” might be softening given the CAA’s announcement in May that it will align its standards for new eVTOL aircraft with EASA’s special conditions VTOL rules.