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Looming no-deal Brexit casts shadow over future air travel

Finnair may have to pare down its UK flight offering ahead of a possible no-deal Brexit.

Finnairin Airbus 350 -lentokone laskeutuu Helsinki-Vantaan lentokentälle kesäpäivänä.
Image: Esko Jämsä / AOP

How high are air connections on the list of priorities facing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he prepares for what seems to be an increasingly likely disorderly departure from the EU, also known as a no-deal Brexit?

That’s the question troubling airlines as well as EU Brexit preparation teams. That’s because after Brexit, the UK will no longer be a part of the EU’s internal market, which covers aviation traffic.

London is a significant player in aviation traffic as it is an important air transportation hub. Of all EU countries, it currently offers the largest number of connections to the rest of the world. This means that future aviation service agreements will also impact on the lives of airline passengers. Finland, for example, would want to ensure that passengers can continue to use London as a transit point on trips to North America.

Time running out for transition arrangements

Last December the EU commission drew up a separate set of regulations that would safeguard aviation traffic between the EU and Britain, even in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Those arrangements were based on the understanding that the UK would leave the EU at the end of March as was previously determined by Theresa May’s government. The temporary system was due to last for a year until the end of March 2020.

Now that the Brexit will not take place until the end of October, the temporary transition arrangements will only be in place for five months before they expire. This means that after March 2020, the parties involved will no longer recognise each other’s pilot licenses. According to sources in Finland, it looks likely that the EU will have to extend the duration of the transition arrangements.

Meanwhile the months-long transition time will also be a nightmare for airlines that have already sold tickets for flights to take place one year later. That’s because flights leaving airports in places such as Finland and bound for North America are routed through the UK.

"Airlines are responsible for transporting customers according to the tickets they sell," said lead specialist Päivi Jämsä of the Transport and Communications Ministry.

Finnair options: Fewer flights or larger planes

Carriers are therefore responsible for re-routing flights if they cannot transit through the UK. They may also have to compensate passengers for last-minute cancellations, according to EU regulations.

Air carriers are also operating in the dark, as they do not know what will happen to traffic rights between the UK and the EU. For example, Finnair is said to be preparing for a reduction in the number of route rights granted. This will cause the airline to pare down its flight offering – or to use larger commercial aircraft.

Fewer route rights will in turn quickly eat into airlines’ bottom line. Even now, before Brexit has been finalised, uncertainty about the future has caused a reduction in passenger numbers.

Brexit "divorce bill" a sticking point

A key factor in what happens next will be the UK’s stance on aviation traffic. EU officials are on standby for talks, but their ability to safeguard aviation and the ability of EU nationals to move freely via Britain depends on reciprocity from Westminster.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the UK has threatened to withhold payments for outstanding EU membership obligations, the so-called EU divorce bill. When the EU sits down to negotiate post-Brexit agreements, it will likely do so only on condition that the UK pays up. If there are differences on this issue, it could throw another spanner in the works for transportation arrangements.

"It’s problematic if the Brits leave without paying their bills and [still] want good trading relations," said Silja Pasanen an EU specialist in the prime minister’s office.

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