British cargo, charter and leasing airlines say they are losing contracts and business to EU rivals after the Brexit deal failed to ensure a promised level playing field.
The carriers say they are severely disadvantaged under the new post-Brexit regime because the rules and practices Britain has unilaterally adopted allow greater freedom and flexibility for EU-owned airlines to fly in the UK than UK carriers have in Europe.
Permits are now required for foreign carriers to fly ad hoc flights between the UK and mainland Europe, which EU airlines have been able to obtain faster than British rivals and therefore are winning more business.
The impact is being felt by small UK airlines that provide back-up passenger services and cargo flights at short notice, with the firms involved warning that the Brexit discrepancies could put them out of business.
At least five of the carriers – Titan Airways, Jota Aviation, Loganair, CargoLogicAir and Air Tanker – are set to join forces with the planned launch of a campaign to save UK aviation jobs, which will demand reciprocal rights for UK airlines.
Alistair Wilson, the managing director of Titan, said the detail of the deal meant UK carriers faced greater restrictions providing aircraft and crew for other airlines, known as wet-leasing. EU carriers can operate most wet-lease flights in the UK under the system, while UK operators say they are only able to do so now in exceptional circumstances in the EU.
“This is an area of business many UK carriers and UK aviation jobs rely on,” Wilson said. “We lost a contract we had operated for the past 12 months requiring a UK-based aircraft and crew to fly cargo between the UK and Germany. The airline was forced to wet-lease from an EU carrier, even though the contract required UK-based aircraft, crew and engineers. This is EU law still presiding over business based in the UK.”
A “non-objection” process also operates in some EU countries but not in the UK, where foreign carriers can only obtain permits for work if no domestic airline objects. That is allowing EU airlines to block permits for UK carriers to operate flights in and out of EU member states, the airlines say.
Wilson said the group did not want to see trade restricted or flights cancelled but warned that unless market access was reciprocal, “hundreds of UK aviation jobs, many of which the government has spent the last year supporting through furlough, will be lost to the continent”.
The airlines’ work includes flying time-critical cargo for factory supply chains, including the UK automotive and pharmaceutical industries. The importance of such immediate response was highlighted recently when Jaguar Land Rover had to halt production due to a missed delivery of parts.
Andrew Green, the chief executive of Jota, which provides wet-lease for BA’s City Flyer service from London City airport, as well as cargo services, said airlines had been in discussion since 2016 with the Department for Transport highlighting concerns, but added: “They’ve negotiated a bad deal and the implementation and advice to industry has been poor.”
According to Green, UK airlines are losing business as EU countries’ regulators can take two to three business days to issue them a permit, while EU carriers can obtain permits from the UK’s CAA within hours.
He said: “Our clients understand that the UK issues permits quickly. We missed out on business to a Ukrainian Antonov 12 – an old cold war transport aeroplane – to fly car parts from the UK to Germany. The customer thought it was easier to do that than wait for us to get a permit.”
He added: “The permit system needs to be relaxed – or if there is protectionism in the EU, it needs to be reciprocal.
“This is going to destroy UK aviation … We are going to end up with a situation where one of the most connected places on earth is reliant on foreign carriers.”
The government is understood to be working with the industry and EU states to press for permits for ad-hoc services to be issued faster.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The free trade agreement that we have agreed with the EU preserves the flexible working practices that are critical to operating the UK aviation industry.
“We are actively supporting all UK airlines and leading engagement with EU member states to ensure UK airlines can operate to the EU with minimum administrative requirements.”