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  • ​OPINION: Brexit offers no upsides to airlines or passengers

​OPINION: Brexit offers no upsides to airlines or passengers

Since 52% of voters opted for Brexit nearly two years ago, the UK's government and regulators have been beset by multiple headaches.

For airlines and air connectivity, as in many other areas, the consequences of the referendum verdict were never close to the mainstream narrative in the run-up to the referendum. It is no surprise, therefore, that the solutions being discussed one year before the UK is due to leave the EU are focused on maintaining the status quo, at best.

Take as an example the UK's membership of the European Common Aviation Area, which grants carriers the freedom to fly into and out of member states, and between other countries in the bloc.

Even if the Brexit eventually negotiated is "soft" and the UK agrees comprehensive access to the ECAA – perhaps through a Swiss-style bilateral agreement – a huge airline market would no longer be involved in the bloc's political process. The UK would counterintuitively abandon its ability to influence decisions, and the EU would lose heft in the global aviation scene. Both parties would be facing a more complicated operational picture.

So while European airline chiefs have disparate opinions on how smooth Brexit is likely to be – from Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary's view that there will be significant disruption to services, through to IAG head Willie Walsh's calm confidence that everything will work itself out – it is noticeable that none of them are citing any positives that will come from Brexit.

That reflects the reality that the EU's open skies and relatively liberal ownership rules are hard-won and remain the stuff of dreams in other regions. There are no "better" options available to states wanting to go it alone.

AirAsia, for example, has long voiced frustrations about needing to operate multiple entities in an attempt to create a pan-Asia carrier. Conversely, carriers such as EasyJet and Ryanair have flourished in the EU, fighting the old guard, driving down fares and challenging outdated notions of countries maintaining control of "national" carriers.

Indeed, the UK itself plays host to an aviation powerhouse in EasyJet – a budget carrier and industry disruptor which has embraced the freedoms offered by the EU to develop a network featuring many services that do not even touch its home country's soil.

For now, at least, EasyJet is maintaining its status as a UK-based airline group, but with its new air operator's certificate in Austria, more of its flights are being operated by an EU-based entity to mitigate the risk of contravening the bloc's ownership rules.

To ensure success post-Brexit, the UK's airlines are having to make sure they aren't too British. Brexit's champions will be hoping that this trend is unique to airlines.

For non-UK carriers with significant connectivity to the country, meanwhile, Brexit only presents the risk of barriers and complication. KLM, which feeds its mainline services from 14 UK airports, is a case in point.

Airlines and their customers have also been able to enjoy Europe's relatively relaxed borders. Today, the UK government's intransigence on ending free movement of people and labour when it leaves the EU is only likely to make it harder to travel to and from the country – affecting its own citizens and those of other EU states. Here there might be some upside for the EU, potentially making it better placed to attract long-haul connectivity than the UK, but few businesses would see barriers as a good thing in the long run.

Those forecasting some kind of Brexit boost for UK businesses and consumers might therefore steer away from airlines and air connectivity in their hunt for good-news stories. The EU, meanwhile, might cite these areas as showing why leaving the bloc is a bad idea.

The UK and – through no fault of its own – the EU might soon look back and realise they never had it so good.

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