How will Brexit affect aviation in Wales and the UK?

Published 24/07/2018   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

Although the UK’s involvement with the EU aviation sector is both complex and extensive, the topic has received comparatively little media coverage in the wider debate on Brexit. This blog sheds some light on the key issues, what’s happening in the negotiations and the implications for Wales and the UK.

EU aviation governance and its impact on the UK

There are three key components to the EU’s role in aviation governance: the aviation single market, EU aviation agreements with non-EU countries, and EU-wide aviation initiatives on safety and air traffic control.

The European Common Aviation Area (ECAA) is a single market for aviation. It allows member state airlines to fly between any two airports within the ECAA. The ECAA is comprised of the EU28, plus Norway, Iceland and the Balkan countries.

In addition, the UK currently benefits from bilateral air service agreements between the EU and non-EU countries. These include agreements with key markets such as the EU-US Air Transport Agreement.

Finally, the UK is involved in several European aviation initiatives such as the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which develops and monitors common safety and environmental rules, and the Single European Sky (SES) air traffic management system.

The European Commission has issued a series of notices to stakeholders, which help illustrate the potential impact of a no-deal scenario on air transport legislation, aviation security and aviation safety. These include:

  • Implications for aviation safety rules (PDF 129KB): including the validity of safety certificates issued by EASA and UK authorities, and the impact on UK aircraft operators and UK registered aircraft;
  • Implications for aviation security (PDF 165KB): indicating that following withdrawal, unless an alternative agreement is reached, EU aviation security rules and standards which apply to third countries in relation to passengers, baggage and freight will apply to flights arriving in the EU from the UK; and
  • Legal implications (PDF 169KB): for the validity of operating licences, since EU licence holders must, for example, have their principle place of business within an EU member state and comply with ownership rules, and the fact that the UK will no longer be covered by EU Air Transport Agreements.

In terms of Air Transport Agreements, evidence from the British Air Transport Association to the House of Lords EU External Affairs Sub-Committee noted:

Prior to the EU Single Aviation Market, the UK had bilateral Air Services Agreements with most, but not all, of the current EU and other members of the Single Aviation Market. It is questionable whether these old agreements would still be valid and they would be so out-dated that they simply not be fit for purpose.

The International Air Transport Association has indicated that, in 2015, the UK aviation sector contributed £55 billion (3%) to UK GDP and supported 945,000 jobs. Services between two non-UK EU countries are a major part of some UK airlines’ business models. With no deal, these airlines may be required to relocate their headquarters or sell shares to EU nationals. In addition, leaving EASA could increase costs for the UK aerospace industry, which may have to continue to seek EASA certification.

Stakeholder views and options post-Brexit

ECAA and future air service agreements with the EU

According to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) there are four options (PDF 160KB) for future UK-EU air service agreements:

Representatives of the industry agree that retaining membership in ECAA and EU multilateral air services are crucial to the sector.

Air service agreements with non-EU countries

According to a joint statement by the UK Government and Airlines UK, Brexit is an opportunity to explore bilateral agreements that enhance ties with North America. In March 2018, Airlines for America, the US major aviation trade body, announced that UK-US agreements could be expected by the end of the month. As of July 2018, agreements are still outstanding, potentially due to airline ownership / nationality issues.


The Royal Aeronautical Society (RAS) identified three options for the UK’s future arrangements with EASA (PDF 7.65MB): full EASA membership; EASA-association without voting rights (like Switzerland); or withdrawal from EASA with regulatory powers directed back to the CAA. The RAS recommends the first option, but this has apparently been ruled out by the European Commission. Trwyn awyren sydd wedi parcio ym maes awyr

Aviation in negotiations

In March 2018, the UK and the EU agreed that the terms of the implementation agreement would include continued aviation market access until the end of 2020. However, as of July 2018, this agreement does not involve EASA. Media reports suggest that the EU is blocking discussions between EASA and the CAA and that the CAA is preparing for a no-deal scenario. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association and the ADS Group (PDF 180KB) have concluded that EASA and CAA need to urgently begin “technical and contingency planning discussions….separate to the political negotiations”.

In its March 2018 Brexit guidelines (PDF 296KB), the European Council envisaged post-Brexit air transport, safety and security agreements, suggesting:

...the aim should be to ensure continued connectivity between the UK and the EU … This could be achieved, inter alia, through an air transport agreement, combined with aviation safety and security agreements, as well as agreements on other modes of transport, while ensuring a strong level playing field in highly competitive sectors.

European Commission slides on aviation and the framework for the future relationship with the UK, published in January, suggest that the EU foresees negotiation of an EU-UK Air Transport Agreement and a Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement (BASA). These would involve a “degree of market access to be conditioned on regulatory convergence/alignment”. However, the slides comment that “UK membership of EASA is not possible”.

The UK Government’s framework for a future transport partnership, published in June, envisages a “comprehensive agreement on air transport, providing continuity of services and opportunities, supporting growth and innovation in the future”. This would involve:

  • Market access: maintaining arrangements for UK and EU carriers operating services to, from and within UK and EU territory;
  • Air Traffic Management and Security: involving co-operation on Air Traffic Management, including on security and to shape international standards and practices; and
  • EASA participation: minimising regulatory burdens and improving safety, including provision of UK technical expertise. EASA participation would mean “the UK would have to respect the remit of the ECJ in that regard, and make an appropriate financial contribution”.

The UK’s involvement with EASA will be a key issue in Brexit negotiations. According to CAA, the UK and France conduct two thirds of EASA rulemaking as well as 90% of its outsourced activities (PDF 160KB). Leaving EASA could incur a massive regulatory burden while decreasing the UK’s wider impact on air transport safety.

The UK Government’s July 2018 White Paper on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union proposes:

an Air Transport Agreement which seeks to maintain reciprocal liberalised aviation access between and within the territory of the UK and the EU, alongside UK participation in EASA.

Impact on Wales

The Welsh Government bought Cardiff Airport in 2013 at a total investment of £55.3 million. It has subsequently made further investments, and in March 2018 announced the purchase of an additional £6 million of shares. EU state aid rules currently limit Welsh Government support for Cardiff Airport and its transport links, although Brexit may provide opportunities to revise existing support arrangements. The Welsh Government launched a consultation on its proposed master plan for Cardiff Airport on 18 July.

As of July 2018, the Welsh Government has not issued a statement on post-Brexit aviation. However, in a scrutiny session with the Assembly’s External Affairs and Additional Legislation (EAAL) Committee, the First Minister said he believes it is important that the UK remain members of EU-wide agencies, including EASA.

However, Cardiff Airport has provided evidence to the EAAL Committee (PDF 153KB) which stressed the importance of aviation for the UK and Wales and set out key priorities and “policy asks” for Wales’ future relationship with the EU.

Besides the general importance of aviation in facilitating trade and business exchange, Cardiff Airport identified three key aspects of the economic impact of aviation in Wales:

  • Aerospace industry: According to Cardiff Airport, the Welsh aerospace industry has a turnover of £5 billion and accounts for over 23,000 jobs. The industry is concentrated in the Cardiff and St Athan enterprise zone and in Broughton (north Wales). There are concerns that aerospace companies may move production back to continental Europe (see our blog post on Airbus’ Brexit concerns);
  • Economic impact of Cardiff Airport: Cardiff Airport estimates its contribution to the local economy at £102 million GVA and 4,350 jobs. Decreasing demand due to consumers losing confidence in post-Brexit air travel is a main concern for the Airport, with leisure travel comprising 87% of its total traffic;
  • Tourism: The Airport is a crucial hub for tourism in Wales, A quarter of Cardiff Airport’s passengers are visitors to Wales, adding an estimated £50 million per year to the Welsh economy.

The Airport’s key messages and policy asks include:

  • Prioritising aviation in Brexit negotiations or finding a “sooner or separate” agreement;
  • A seamless transition between existing and post-Brexit aviation arrangements;
  • Continued participation in ECAA, in the EU’s current and future air service agreements and in EU safety and security initiatives, including EASA participation with voting rights; and
  • Continued efforts at the national and EU level to streamline regulation.

Other policy asks include clarifying the status of non-UK EEA nationals residing in the UK, maintaining the current UK/EEA/Swiss passport channel and EU baggage regulations, and reviewing Air Passenger Duty (APD/APO), duty-free, and regional connectivity.

Cardiff Airport’s January 2018 annual update points to 50% passenger growth since 2013, and outlines ambitious plans for the future. Given the scale of public investment and the Airport’s economic role, neither the Welsh Government nor the Airport will want to see these plans placed in jeopardy by Brexit. The stakes will be high for the airport, the economy and the travelling public.

Article by Jessica Laimann, National Assembly for Wales Research Service.

The Research Service acknowledges the parliamentary fellowship provided to Jessica Laimann by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which enabled this Research Briefing to be completed.