During a session this morning at the Air Charter Expo (ACE) conference at London Biggin Hill Airport, the UK charter industry lamented the country’s departure from the European Union (EU). Under Brexit, UK operators have needed to obtain country-specific permits for charter flights into the EU since January.
“The permit system has been a nightmare, and January was the worst month of my career,” David Lacy at UK-based charter operator RVL Group told ACE attendees. The situation has somewhat improved since then with some block permit arrangements now in place for countries such as France, Ireland, and Italy.
“But for other countries it has been crazy,” Lacy complained. “We’ve had to work with arrangements from a bilateral agreement going right back to 1956. Since January, we’ve only been able to fly one intra-European flight [for Covid-related logistics work]. We used to do flights like that all the time [pre-Brexit] and while it’s now a bit better, we’re by no means where we’d want to be.”
Mark Bosly, chief air services negotiator with the UK Department of Transport (DfT), said charter companies cannot expect to operate as they were pre-Brexit. “The rules have changed; you are now regarded as a foreign operator within the EU.”
He noted, however, that the UK government is “working hard” to help ease the operating burden through bilateral arrangements with each of the 27 EU member states. So far the DfT has secured a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with 15—including France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands—to provide Fifth Freedom rights for cargo operations, said Bosly. He expects more MOUs to follow before year-end.
The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has also secured more than 200 block permits for UK non-scheduled passenger operators from the EU 27 that allow Third and Fourth Freedom rights to and from the EU. This is a major achievement for the regulator, which, following the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31, was the only country to offer this flexible arrangement. Renewal of the three-month permit on April 1 was conditional on a reciprocal arrangement being in place with the EU states.
“The UK was way ahead of the curve with these block permits; unfortunately, many EU countries were slow to replicate the arrangement,” said Bernhard Fragner, founder and chief executive of Austrian charter company GlobeAir. “After a lot of pressure from 20 Austrian operators, our civil aviation authority was persuaded to put a reciprocal arrangement in place for UK operators by the end of March.”
Fragner said GlobeAir has conducted more than 1,600 flights to the UK since January “and we are now getting used to the new system.”
Fragner’s views were echoed by Leigh Westwood, director of operations for Luxaviation UK, but he pointed to the need for a much smoother and more streamlined permit process. “It can be difficult to get permissions at very short notice, with some states insisting on a lead time of days rather than hours,” he said. Given the strongest selling points for business aviation are convenience and flexibility, Westwood argued, these situations are “very frustrating, forcing us to turn down business.”
Westwood also noted that some states “interpret the rules differently and can be inflexible.” He singled out Greece for criticism: “It is refusing access to its islands for UK-registered aircraft under Third and Fourth Freedoms, which is incredibly frustrating during the summer months.”
Mosely acknowledged Westwood’s concerns and said while there is “no silver bullet,” the DfT, through regular contact with the EU member states, will “strive to address these concerns.”