View from the CEO: Navigating the fog: the risk to regional airports in the wake of Article 50
From a weekend getaway in Europe to a jet setting adventure on distant shores, starting your holiday with a flight is now a routine part of many people’s travels. The expansion of cheap air fares is largely the product of European aviation policies, which liberalised the skies and enabled airlines to flourish – something that we have all benefitted from.
In the 1990s, the UK was one of the prime movers in the formation of the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA), a comprehensive ‘open skies’ arrangement that allows EU owned airlines to fly anywhere to, from and within almost all European countries without restriction. This comprehensive policy framework removed the need for complex legal agreements between individual countries, giving freedom to airlines to develop routes as efficiently as possible. New connections opened up across Europe and the result has been air fares becoming so cheap that they put some rail fares - for shorter distances - to shame.
Having been set to full throttle, the low cost revolution has resulted in significant growth of regional airports up and down the UK. At the start of the millennium, Bristol Airport served only 5 scheduled international destinations. Now, we are proud to serve over 120 destinations, including 16 capital cities. Passenger numbers have risen steadily over the last two decades, and we expect more than 8 million people to pass through our terminal this year.
However, Brexit has put a continent sized question mark over this growth, connectivity and freedom. With the triggering of Article 50, from March 2019 the UK will no longer have access to the single aviation market, leaving airlines with no legal framework for flights between the UK and Europe. With 94 per cent of Bristol Airport’s passengers travelling to Europe – a statistic mirrored at many other regional airports across the UK – there is limited scope to switch capacity to emerging markets beyond the EU. The South West could conceivably find its connections to key overseas markets and destinations cut.
A similar ‘cliff edge’ is faced by other sectors, but is particularly problematic in aviation, where airlines launch their schedules and offer seats for sale 12 to 18 months before flights operate. So, by the end of this year, airlines will be offering seats for summer 2019 – after Britain has left the EU – without knowing if they will be able to fly. Some airlines are already looking at setting up operations within an EU country, to give them flexibility with fleet and corporate ownership requirements, but at the cost of adding layers of red tape which would ultimately be passed onto passengers.
Aviation, by its nature, is an international industry and an enabler of trade for other sectors of the economy. Brexit poses challenges never seen before, but ones which it is in all of our interests to resolve quickly. Regional airports and their passengers stand the most to lose, and whatever the election results in a few weeks’ time, the Government must act to provide certainty by committing to prioritise aviation in its negotiations and seeking early agreement on a transitional period which would see the current arrangements remain in place for as long these negotiations take.