Will UK become an “Aviation Leper”?

“British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down.” Boris Johnson, Daily Telegraph, 26 June 2016

A short boat trip across Mirabella Bay from the upmarket resort of Elounda in Crete gets you to the island of Spinalonga, formerly a leper colony. The last person suffering from leprosy left there in 1957, and it’s now a tourist attraction. Elounda itself attracts elements of the rich and famous, just as it has since the flying boat service of Imperial Airways used the bay as a refuelling stop for flights from London to the Middle East and South Africa in the 1930s.

From Don Thomas Poster Collection – San Diego Air and Space Museum

The ten-day itinerary for Imperial Airways’ first flight from Croydon to Cape Town in 1932 had 18 possible stops depending on the weather and the need to refuel. Air travel has certainly come on a way since then. Britain got its first no frills transatlantic airline in 1977, the short-lived “Skytrain” from London to New York, but closer to home we had to wait longer for any real competition to appear.

My first trips to Crete were on once a week charter flights out of Gatwick to a relatively untouched island. Soon new-build boxes appeared, clustered in groups on the edge of traditional Greek villages. Something similar happened all over the Mediterranean: holiday homes promoted by programmes like Channel 4’s “A Place in the Sun”.

How did this happen? Low cost, budget airlines were amongst the few obvious winners from the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001. Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s talkative chief boasted: “Ryanair is going to be a monster in Europe in the next 10 years”. They’d certainly hit a sweet spot: people still wanted to fly on holiday and short-haul European routes were regarded as less prone to terrorist attacks than the long-haul flights offered by national carriers.

A further boost to low cost travel around Europe came in 2006, with the signing of agreements to establish a single market in aviation services, the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA). The ECAA liberalised the air transport industry by, amongst other things, allowing any company from any ECAA member state to fly between any ECAA member states’ airports – Ryanair didn’t have to fly just to and from Dublin, for example.

A level playing field, open market is part of the fundamental creed of the European Union, resulting in greater choice and reduced prices for consumers – at least that’s certainly what happened to European flights. As a result, more people could get from the UK to Crete cheaply and when they got there, they wanted to buy a holiday home. Soon it became the norm to fly, take holidays and settle all over Europe.

Of course, this came to a screeching halt in March this year. Greece put in place a strict (and initially at least, highly successful) lockdown early on, stopping flights and enforcing a curfew. As the lockdown was gradually eased, I took a gamble on Quarantine Roulette and with my family caught one of the first flights through a deserted Bristol airport to Crete in July.

As we landed at Chania airport, I thought that this might be the last time it’s this easy – not just because of passport queues or the ever-present virus but because we still haven’t sorted out what happens to air travel when we leave the EU.

The UK automatically leaves the ECAA at the end of 2020. In the event of No Deal, UK operating licences would no longer be valid in the EU and air travel would grind to a halt. That’s not too likely – it’s in the interests of both sides for air travel to continue, and there will be huge lobbying by airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet to make that happen. What it does mean is that we may end up with a limited agreement, restricted to current flights only (and you can bet that European airlines will themselves be lobbying in every way they can to restrict future competition from non-EU rivals as much as possible).

One way to keep market access would be to become a new member of the ECAA. The problem is this would need unanimous support from each EU member state and Spain will likely veto any deal that includes Gibraltar’s international airport. Also, membership of the ECAA means being subject to ECJ jurisdiction – a red line for the current UK government.

It’s always possible that the UK negotiates a new ‘open skies’ bilateral deal with the EU, or separate deals with each individual member state. An EU-wide deal runs into the familiar roadblock of level playing field arrangements while negotiating separate deals is an immensely complex and time-consuming exercise coming at exactly the wrong time.

Getting trapped in endless discussions about ways of negotiating travel arrangements with the EU also means a lack of focus on both more immediate and long-term concerns:

  • How are airlines going to survive until next summer’s holiday season?
  • What should the future of air travel look like given the ever-growing climate crisis?

We need a global, joined up strategic approach to address these issues. The EU, naturally, has thought about this and in 2015 launched an Aviation Strategy aiming to “generate growth for European business, foster innovation and let passengers profit from safer, cleaner and cheaper flights, while offering more connections.”

Where does this leave the UK, standing outside looking in, instead of being part of this continental, long term approach to aviation?  What will happen to all those new homes bought following the expansion of low cost airlines after 2001?

Will it still be easy for people to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down, as Boris Johnson said in 2016? Or will we be “aviation lepers”, isolated like those on Spinalonga in the past? The difference being that a combination of the current state of the airline industry, Brexit and the UK’s lack of strategic thinking mean that we can’t even get to that magical island off the coast of Crete in the first place.

Guy Maughfling lives in Cheltenham