The A4E Aviation Summit in early March showed that while Europe’s biggest airlines can agree on some issues, there will always be significant differences bubbling beneath the surface.

And if you need a topic to divide opinion, there are few more reliable choices than Brexit.

During a panel session at the Brussels event, which was organised in association with FlightGlobal, the chief executives of Air France-KLM, EasyJet, IAG, Lufthansa and Ryanair were happy to agree that a reduction in the scope of open skies – a prospect if the UK fails to agree a new aviation deal with the European Union – would be a bad thing.

But stark differences emerged when it came to discussions around the likelihood of the UK's departure from the EU disrupting air service – and even the desirability of that happening.

"I think it’s in our interests – not for a long period of time – that aircraft are grounded," says Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary.

O'Leary, a vocal Remain supporter in the lead-up to the referendum, continues: "It’s only when you get to that stage that you’re going to persuade the average British voter that you were lied to in the entire Brexit debate. You were promised that you would leave the European Union and everything will stay the same. And the reality is, you leave the European Union, and everything will fundamentally change."

Recently appointed EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren was quick to jokingly lend his support to the idea of Ryanair grounding aircraft.

But Lufthansa Group chief executive Carsten Spohr agrees with O’Leary regarding the potential for disruption to have a positive impact: "In theory, if we could use this industry to prove to the British how wrong their decision was, that might even be a good thing."


IAG chief executive Willie Walsh takes a different view, however. He is confident that a UK-EU agreement on aviation will be reached, and even labelled British newspaper the Financial Times the "Fake Times" for a story suggesting IAG is not prepared for Brexit.

"I'm a firm believer that this will get resolved,” Walsh states. “There’s no better industry at dealing with disruption than ours, [and] there's not a lot that needs to be sorted out."

Walsh was supported in his optimism about a smooth road towards Brexit by Air France-KLM chief executive Jean-Marc Janaillac. He cites the example of Air France’s experience when an open skies agreement with the USA lapsed.

"I don’t believe there will be a problem," Janaillac says. "For example, some years ago, the agreement between France and the USA stopped and was not replaced because they didn’t agree, and the flights kept going. They found a temporary solution."

He goes on to suggest that there are plenty of precedents for the shape of the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

"We have many examples of different status, like with Norway, like with Switzerland, like with Canada and so on, to find a way of settlement between the UK and Europe. So I don’t see any great problem next year."

Asked whether he was concerned about Brexit’s impact on Virgin Atlantic – in which Air France-KLM is finalising a 31% stake – Janaillac drew laughter by saying: "As for Virgin Atlantic, we rely on negotiations of Willie [Walsh]. We are, for once, behind IAG."

Walsh meanwhile expresses confidence that the UK will reach a new air services agreement with the USA. British Airways’ home country currently relies on its EU membership for its rights to serve US routes.

"There will be an agreement between the UK and the US. That will be a comprehensive open skies agreement," he states. "Anybody who doesn’t believe that is living in cloud cuckoo land.

"The UK government is determined to reach an agreement with the US. The US government is determined to reach an agreement with the UK. And that’s what will happen."


Spohr notes, however, that there are forces beyond economic common sense at work when it comes to Brexit.

"In politics, there are things bigger than the economies and industry," he states. "This Brexit, none of us wanted it. [But] there is a tough negotiation going on and they all have sharp weapons in their pockets, and aviation is a sharp weapon.

"The French and the Germans, who are trying to keep Europe together, surely know that aviation can be used to put pressure on the British."

Those "sharp weapons" might be a strict insistence on majority-EU-ownership of airlines in the event of a "hard Brexit", or threats to restrict rights to fly between the UK and EU countries, for example.

Lundgren takes a different view to Spohr, however, suggesting disruption would not be in anyone's interests.

"It would be inconceivable for me that there would be any politicians out there that would want to see planes being grounded," Lundgren states. "Everybody, I’m sure, is engaging with everybody to ensure that [a comprehensive agreement] happens."

O’Leary was quick to disagree in typically outspoken fashion.

"I think there is going to be a real crisis," O’Leary asserts. "I believe there will be disruption in flights between the UK and Europe. I think partly because it is in the German and French interest to push the ownership issue to the maximum extent."

Walsh hit back at this, saying "I don’t think it’s an issue that’s in the interests of France". He cites the fact that KLM "serves more UK cities than I do" to demonstrate that most stakeholders in Europe would want to avoid a messy, point-scoring Brexit.

But O'Leary also suggests that Walsh has his own motives for painting such a positive picture for IAG.

"Willie has to play the game, which is ‘it will all be solved and nice' and 'Theresa May will deliver us a deeper and special bloody partnership', which doesn’t mean anything," he says.

This prompted Walsh to further clarify his reasons for his optimism on a smooth Brexit, particularly on the issue of IAG’s ownership structure, reminding the audience that he and his company are European, and not British, despite its biggest airline being British Airways.

"I’m not British, I'm Irish," Walsh notes. "I work for a Spanish company. I have airlines operating in Spain, France, Ireland, the UK. I’ve got a big operation in Poland where we do all of our general support for the business.

"I have a European company. And the EU must be acting in my interests as a European company. And I’m sure they will. And the idea that Aer Lingus is not an Irish company or Iberia is not a Spanish company is just a nonsense – they are. They clearly are. Aer Lingus is an Irish company; [its] principle place of business is Ireland. It services Ireland, [and] it is run from Dublin. Same for Iberia – [it] is Spanish."

But whatever the differences in opinion on how the UK’s departure from the EU will play out, Spohr summed up the airline chiefs' sentiment towards Brexit as a concept: "As I said on the morning it happened, as a European I think it’s terrible."

Source: Cirium Dashboard