The UK has relaxed its air transport policy to favour foreign carriers seeking fifth freedom beyond rights at regional airports.

Requests for fifth freedom rights, which enable an airline to carry passengers and cargo between airports in two other countries on a flight that originated in the home country, have usually been turned down by the UK. However, a study by the UK Civil Aviation Authority has found that granting fifth freedom rights outside the crowded London airport system would, in general, be beneficial. As a result, the UK says it will apply a general assumption in favour of allowing such services.

“This is part of a broader pattern of taking a liberalised approach to regional airports,” says Chris Cain, head of regional airport strategy at the UK Department of Transport. “We are saying to airlines come and make us a proposal.”

Manchester airport has been pushing for the policy change for some time, and the CAA study also looked at Birmingham and Glasgow international airports. However, Cain says that other smaller regional airports could also benefit, including Belfast, Bristol, Edinburgh and Newcastle. The offer is also open to cargo carriers, with potential beneficiaries including Glasgow Prestwick and Nottingham East Midlands airports.

The exceptions to the assumptions in favour of granting rights will be if a carrier that already operates a route would be disadvantaged. Equally, if the UK is trying to negotiate a broader bilateral with a particular country, this may take precedence. In certain instances, the UK may ask for reciprocal rights, but this is “not conditional”, says Cain.

The move by the UK is in line with the government’s 2003 aviation white paper, which envisaged regional airports taking more of the strain from the overcrowded London airport system (City, Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton and Stansted). Cain points out that there has already been an increase in foreign carriers serving UK regional airports in the last couple of years.

The CAA report estimates that the benefits to the UK in terms of business and tourism will outweigh UK airline losses by a factor of more than 3:1 on long-haul routes other than to the USA, and by 1.4:1 on US routes. “Such a shift would represent a powerful signal of good intentions on the part of the UK and would send a strong message that the regions are open for business,” the report says.

The report examined seven case studies, one of which was based on a proposal by Pakistan International Airways in 2004 to fly from Pakistan to North America via Manchester. The report says that historically fifth freedom carriers have found it difficult to compete against incumbents, but notes that airlines such as Emirates and Singapore Airlines might be more successful. Carriers from the Indian subcontinent are also expected to apply for new fifth freedom rights.

Source: Airline Business