Brexit threatens to strip UK pilots of right to fly EU planes

Passenger aircraft, operated by Easyjet Plc, sit parked at London Luton Airport in Luton, U.K., on Monday, March 30, 2020. EasyJet grounded its entire fleet after completing customer-repatriation flights, and said it's in talks to build a cash cushion to see it through the gap in business caused by the coronavirus. Photo: Bloomberg

British pilots already fearing for their jobs as the coronavirus crisis hammers air travel face a new risk as a potential no-deal Brexit threatens to deprive them of the right to fly European Union-registered planes.

With the U.K.’s split from the EU set to be completed on Dec. 31, there’s no agreement in place that would allow aviators holding U.K. licenses to serve the bloc on anything other than British planes. The country’s Civil Aviation Authority has in contrast said it will continue to recognize EU documentation for a further two years.

That’s a particular problem for pilots at airlines such as EasyJet Plc, which has its headquarters in Luton, England, but flies from multiple bases across Europe using three different air-operator certificates.

Without a reciprocal deal, “there will be consequences for the efficiency of U.K. airlines and for the future of the U.K. pilot profession,” said Brian Strutton, general secretary of pilots’ union BALPA.

European airlines have already slashed more than 75,000 jobs, based on a Bloomberg tally, part of efforts to manage an anticipated sluggish recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. EasyJet is considering the removal of a third of pilot positions and has closed three U.K. bases, while Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. said Friday it will eliminate 1,150 more jobs to preserve cash.

Negotiation period

The licensing issue for pilots mirrors concerns across other parts of the economy, with companies spanning broadcasting through financial services to architecture facing the prospect of having to establish an EU presence or acquire EU-recognized qualifications in order to legally operate in the bloc.

While the U.K. left the EU on Jan. 31, the agreement on how the separation would be managed included a transition period for the negotiation of a wide variety of matters on which the two sides remain far apart.

The CAA’s director, Richard Stephenson, said that pilots with U.K. licenses who want to operate EU-registered aircraft can transfer their license to an EU member state, as some pilots have already done. He added that the negotiations between Britain and the EU are ongoing.

The Department for Transport is seeking a bilateral agreement on aviation safety that would include mutual recognition of pilot licenses, according to a person familiar with the situation.

One EasyJet captain, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the company recently advised against converting U.K. licenses to European ones because of the ongoing uncertainty over the final agreement with the EU.

EasyJet’s British pilots have instead been told that they’ll operate U.K.-registered planes, but as those comprise only 50% of the fleet there are concerns that EU pilots will have an advantage as the carrier looks to cut jobs, the pilot said.

EasyJet, Ryanair

A spokeswoman for the airline said EasyJet moved the licenses for its European-based crew to Austria in November 2018, while confirming that U.K counterparts didn’t change theirs.

Ryanair Holdings Plc, Europe’s biggest discount airline, is based in Dublin and has its fleet registered in Ireland. It counts London Stansted as its biggest base and employs large numbers of British pilots. The company declined to comment on its licensing arrangements.

British Airways is less likely to be affected, since as a former flag carrier all of its planes are registered in the U.K. and most operate out of a single hub at London’s Heathrow.

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