One of the more eye-catching – and alarming – claims put about by Remainers both during and after the referendum is that leaving the European Union might literally force aeroplanes to stop flying. Without integration into Brussels’ aerospace arrangements, British companies wouldn’t be able to fly into airports on the continent.
This has got a lot of press time, as such extreme claims often do. But the truth is that even industry figures who backed Remain agree that the idea of Britain and the EU not coming to an agreement on flights is unthinkable. In fact, most of the essential treaties and international bodies which oversee international flights already extend far beyond the EU, and there is a broad range of precedents for London and Brussels to draw on when coming up with a sensible post-Brexit arrangement.
On top of that, taking back control of relevant policy will allow future governments to do more to support regional airports, which currently face a bleak future under EU plans to ‘streamline’ the Union’s airport network.
But why would the EU allow us to remain part of the Single European Sky (SES – its initiative to coordinate airspace regulation) after we leave? Simple: because it already covers countries outside the EU. On top of that, Britain has been closely integrated into European Air Traffic Management for decades and also has the largest aviation market in Europe.
Refusing to strike a sensible deal on this would do huge damage to airlines and other industries, including exporters, all over Europe. Even if they did, we could always fall back on the standard rules of the International Civil Aviation Organisation whilst negotiating a permanent arrangement. Fortunately, both the British Government and the European Council have made clear commitment to protect air transport during the negotiations.
What about the apparent threat to cheap flights? Well, one of the key things which has driven down costs is the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA), a set of bilateral agreements designed to extend the SES to non-EU countries. Brussels has already reached deals with neighbouring countries from Georgia to Morocco, and as another neighbouring, non-member state seeking good relations with the EU we can fully expect to remain part of the ECAA after Brexit.
So if this is the case, some of you will doubtless be wondering why so many big airlines came out in favour of EU membership during the referendum. The answer has nothing to do with keeping planes up, and everything to do with keeping competition down.
Large airlines including British Airways, Easyjet, Ryanair, and Virgin Atlantic spend anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands a year lobbying in Brussels. With their deep coffers and large, well-funded legal departments they are much better able to absorb the huge costs of EU red tape than smaller rivals and start-ups who might undercut their prices. Some of them have a long history of pro-EU political stances, too – senior figures at British Airways and Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson even pushed for Britain to join the Euro!
In fact, when giving evidence to Parliament senior figures from both airlines and industry bodies were keen to downplay the fear-mongering predictions put about by some Remainers, with Tim Hawkins of the Manchester Airports Group arguing that a deal for flights was not technically difficult and ought to be achievable even without a broader transition plan.
Finally, it’s always worth remembering that a good Brexit deal isn’t just about securing what we have – it’s about being free to go farther and do better than the EU allows. For example, the EU is currently in the process of cutting off state support for small regional airports, as part of a drive to reduce what it sees ‘over-capacity’ in the Union’s network.
But these airports are often crucial for local economies, creating jobs both directly and indirectly and linking regional business to national and international markets. Taking back control will allow ministers to support them, and the communities that depend on them.