Brexit, COVID-19 and UK aviation

16th December 2020

The European Common Aviation Area (ECAA) is an agreement signed in 2006 and effectively allows the freedom for any European based airline to fly any route (subject to regulatory approval) within the 27 member states of the European Union (EU). For example, EasyJet, a British airline with UK registered aircraft, flies routes freely and fairly between multiple European cities such as Paris and Rome. Over the last 14 years, the agreement has made the European aviation market more competitive and opened up new routes with low fares. As a member state of the EU, UK based airlines and consumers have been able to take advantage of this.

One question that arose during the transition was where UK aviation will stand in Europe once Brexit is complete as this will also mean automatic withdrawal from the ECAA. Airlines such as EasyJet which have such a stronghold in Europe began to move operations and registered business addresses from the UK to other European countries such as Austria. Likewise, the place of registration for a number of aircraft in its fleet was also moved away from UK shores as a precaution should no deal be reached and the company no longer be able to continue its intraEuropean operations.

As the pandemic has taken hold, the airline industry has been one of the hardest hit. The global free movement of people has been placed on hold due to governments across the world frequently changing entry requirements as COVID-19 infection rates rise and fall.

While the EU advised that all but essential travel was permitted to the continent (except for Australia and New Zealand whose infection rates are comparably low, where non-essential travel was permitted), the ECAA has allowed residents of member states to travel freely within the continent, albeit with entry requirements less harshly tightened.

The question arises as to how the EU will see the UK once the transition period is over and the UK leaves the EU fully on 1st January 2021. As it stands, from 2021 the UK will, as far as air travel is concerned, fall into the same category as any other country outside the EU. With the UK having the 7th and 6th highest number of cases and deaths respectively as a result of COVID-19, given that its membership of the ECAA will now be invalid, the UK will carry no advantage over other countries with similar COVID-19 statistics such as Turkey or Russia.

If no deal can be reached before 1st January, only essential travel will be permitted across the English Channel into Europe from the UK. This has the potential to cause further significant financial and operational challenges to the UK aviation industry.