The UK’s business aviation sector is experiencing the most challenging period in its history due to the impact both of the pandemic and Brexit, which have strangled demand and curtailed operations. However, its outlook is sanguine thanks to the imminent lifting of lockdown restrictions across the country, triggered by the UK’s swift and efficient vaccine rollout, and potential fresh business opportunities arising from the UK’s new position as an independent trading nation.
This was the key message from the British Business and General Aviation Association’s (BBGA’s) annual conference, held virtually late last week.
“The UK became the standout worst performer [in Europe] once it adopted the strictest lockdown [at the latter end of 2020],” said WingX Advance managing director Richard Koe. “But it was pretty near the back of the class throughout last year, and that again was directly related to stop-start [lockdowns]…and travel bans.”
The end of the year-long transition period for the UK’s Brexit departure from the EU has added to the sector’s woes. In its latest report, released at the event, WingX recorded a 64 percent fall in departures of UK-registered charter aircraft to EU member states in the first two months of 2021, to 175 movements. This compares with 482 departures in January and February 2020, and 658 during the same period in 2019.
According to WingX, the fall in traffic this year hit UK charter revenues by more than €1 million ($1.19 million) a month. Further, it resulted in an estimated €6 million deficit in landing, handling, and parking fees across the UK’s top three business aviation airports—Biggin Hill, Luton, and Farnborough.
BBGA delegates learned that UK operators have been hampered considerably since December 31, the end of the transition period, by time-consuming and often costly hurdles from securing clearance for commercial flights to the remaining EU member states.
While the UK government has allowed EU operators post-transition to continue exercising Third and Fourth Freedom rights—allowing flights to and from the UK—under a block permit agreement, UK operators have found that such freedoms have not been reciprocated by many EU countries.
David Lacy, head of commercial for UK business and specialist aviation services company RVL Group described the current permit system as “a nightmare pretty much from January 1," and singled out Germany and Spain as being “particularly difficult” to deal with.
“As UK operators, we've had to live with the fact that our European competitors have been issued with block permits [from the UK] since January, and are running rings around us,” Lacy said.
His view was echoed by Saxonair chief executive and BBGA vice-chair Alex Durand. “This year has been a disaster, and it’s so frustrating as our sector predicted it would be but were powerless to stop it,” he said.
While Saxonair has secured permits from Italy and France so far, other countries have been less obliging. Germany, for example, “has been and still is particularly difficult,” said Durand.
Officials from the UK Department for Transport (DfT) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) assured delegates that bilateral negotiations with the EU’s 27 member states have been stepped up. “We’ve written to all member states and have had a great deal of engagement with a number of parties,” said CAA head of airline licensing David Kendrick. “Other formal discussions and negotiations are planned over the coming weeks.”
Kenrick acknowledged the government is initially looking to “replicate the flexibility of the UK's block permit system” within the EU for ad hoc charter operators and to “address any issues” that these providers may have, especially in getting permissions at very short notice, which can be an “operational challenge” for some. “We want the permit process to be conducted as smoothly and as quickly as possible,” said Kendrick.
The UK is also seeking immediate approval for Third and Fourth freedom services between the UK and the EU. Negotiations are also ongoing to secure Fifth and Sixth Freedoms that would allow operators to fly between two foreign countries on a flight originating or ending in their own country or having made a stop in their own country. These freedoms, the BBGA argued, “are critical to the competitive landscape.”
Despite the acknowledged uncertainty and concerns for the UK operators, BBGA members expressed optimism for the country’s business aviation industry going forward. The easing of the UK coronavirus restrictions over the coming months, thanks to the successful vaccine rollout, should put an end to debilitating lockdowns and enforced quarantines, BBGA said, and trigger a surge in business and leisure travelers.
Saxonair’s Durand said the UK industry is more united than ever as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit, which should provide a springboard for future collaborations. “I think like never before we are showing that we are together as an industry and working with each other,” he said.
Durand stressed the need for the industry to bolster its image and promote the positive “and often indispensable” role that business aircraft have played during the pandemic. This ranges from flying humanitarian missions to filling the void left by the grounded or severely curtailed commercial airliners.
“We are a community of enablers,” said Durand. “We make things happen, but our role is not widely understood [by the public] or the tabloid media,” which often portrays business aircraft as toys for the rich.
While Brexit is proving a major challenge, Durand said there is a “silver lining” to the UK now being an independent nation. “It’s hiding in plain sight,” he said. “The UK happens to have everything it needs to become a world-leading jurisdiction of choice [for businesses], including world-class legal, financial, insurance, and regulatory expertise.”
Driving new business to the UK could drive up demand for business aviation services and help the local operators to flourish, he concluded.