Whoever forms the next government faces two formidably difficult and important aviation issues. Of these, finding a cure to the foot-dragging over expanding Heathrow is the lesser concern.
Even more important: what do we do with a problem like Brexit, when the powerful and highly efficient UK aviation industry is built upon the European principle of “open skies”? Over the past 21 years, easyJet has grown to become the largest UK airline by passenger numbers, and a key European player. The freedom to succeed was conferred by the freedom of the skies: the right of any EU airline to fly between any two points in Europe.
While Ryanair is Irish, its largest base of operations is the UK. Whatever you think of Michael O’Leary’s style, his airline has done wonders for our connectivity. And the presence of these two giants has driven existing players such as British Airways and Monarch to improve service and reduce fares.
Across the Atlantic, UK passengers will have more choice than ever this summer, with the upstart Norwegian launching new US services from Belfast, Edinburgh and Gatwick, and BA biting back. And this battleground exists only because Europe and the US reached agreement a decade ago to liberalise transatlantic links.
Airlines are already planning their operations for the summer season of 2019, which starts on 31 March – coinciding with Brexit. And absolutely no one knows who will be able to fly to where in the remaining EU and the US.
While it’s a fair bet that Spain, Greece and Portugal will be happy for any old airline to fly from the UK bearing millions of holidaymakers, the governments of France, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy already see the opportunity to reverse the dominance of the British-Irish aviation axis. The choice of destinations, frequencies and fares we enjoy could remain exactly the same – but equally we could wake up at the end of March 2019 to find that prices have soared and options have slumped.
While a 10 per cent rise in the cost of Camembert or a BMW would be annoying, just suppose Europe insisted that routes had to be balanced – every flight by a UK airline must be matched by one operated by an EU carrier. The key leisure and business route between London and Nice has around 16 flights a day, each way. All of them are flown by UK airlines. While no doubt innovative ways to stretch the concept would be imposed, with (say) easyJet France insisting, “Bien sur, nous sommes francais,” life would get very messy, very quickly.
And across the Atlantic, the UK is now facing a protectionist regime in the White House, which listens to the US giants: American, Delta and United. They could probably do with a little less competition, thank you.
Fortunately, we have far-sighted political parties competing for office, who will have already addressed this crucial issue.
Or do we?
Ryanair’s Neil Sorahan says domestic routes will be reviewed after Brexit negotiations
I could find nothing in the manifestos of the Conservatives, Labour or the Liberal Democrats about aviation. Except on that second thorny issue: Heathrow.
You can’t accuse the Lib Dems of concealing their contempt for aviation, even if you can accuse them of misspelling the name of the biggest airport in Essex: “We remain opposed to any expansion of Heathrow, Stanstead [sic] or Gatwick and any new airport in the Thames Estuary and will focus instead on improving existing regional airports such as Birmingham and Manchester. We will ensure no net increase in runways across the UK.”
In contrast, Labour “recognises the need for additional airport capacity in the South East”. So which is it to be, then, Jeremy: Heathrow, Gatwick or both? All we are told is: “We welcome the work done by the Airports Commission.”
The Tories say: “We will continue our programme of strategic national investments, including High Speed 2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the expansion of Heathrow Airport.” Even Zac Goldsmith, who resigned his seat in protest against the decision to back a third runway, now says: “Heathrow is not the defining issue for this election. This election is about leadership.”
For the sake of everyone flying to, from or within the UK, it would be good to see some.