Richard North, 26/06/2018  

The news that MPs have backed "controversial plans to build a third runway at London's Heathrow airport" is not without its irony. 

Since 31 December 2017, the airport has only been able to operate by virtue of an EASA aerodrome certificate issued by the CAA which, under UK law permits commercial passenger flights. With the advent of Brexit day, however, the EASA certificate will cease to be valid (unless a transitional agreement is secured with the EU) and aircraft will no longer be able to fly from it.

This, of course, can be relatively easily remedied by the UK government reinstating an airport licensing system, under the aegis of its own Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). With that system in place, UK registered aircraft will again be free to take off and land at Heathrow – and all the other UK airports which currently require certification under EU law.

Needless to say, the UK is not a free agent when it comes to deciding the standards to which its airports must comply. The idea that we "take back control" and set out own legislative agenda is an empty fantasy harboured only by the more extreme Brexiteer zealots.

Rather, the UK will be bound by ICAO rules, in this case, the 352-page Annex 14, now in its 7th edition. Under the Chicago Convention (now in its ninth edition), to which the UK is a signatory, we would be obliged to implement these rules, making this a classic example of the "double coffin lid", whereby we escape one set of rules at EU level, only to be bound by the same set of rules promulgated at global level.

However, while this international agreement sets harmonised global standards, mutual recognition, although encouraged, is not automatic. And, as the EU's EASA points out, mutual recognition (or reciprocity) is certainly not automatic at a European level. The legal tools currently to do so are bilateral agreements and Working Arrangements.

What is difficult to establish is the precise instrument that empowers the EU to dictate the conditions under which commercial aircraft can fly in the territories of third countries, and it is not easy to establish whether it has to power to prevent aircraft registered by Member States from using foreign (i.e., third country) airports, as opposed to preventing third country operators using airports in EU Member States.

However, in the absence of a bilateral agreement between the UK and the EU, the Turkish Working Agreement gives a good idea of what might be expected of the UK before reciprocal operations can be accepted.

Then, there is not only the EASA aerodrome certification to consider. There are also the issues of safety certification of air traffic management and air navigation systems, where mutual recognition is required, and no agreements will be in place if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. Thus, even if it was theoretically possible for EU-based aircraft to land at Heathrow, that is not practically possible without the use of air traffic management and air navigation systems.

On top of this, there are the wider issues of open skies agreements and slot allocations, which also control commercial access to airports such as Heathrow.

Putting the fragmented areas together, it is very hard to see how, in the context of a "no deal" Brexit, aviation agreements with the EU can survive. There is bound to be a very substantial effect on European traffic and, because EU standards are linked with the US and others through bilateral agreements and working arrangements, transatlantic and Asian traffic may also be affected.

There is nothing, of course, that cannot be negotiated with the EU, but in the light of what appear to be deteriorating relations and with no Withdrawal Agreement in sight, the possibility of a "no deal" Brexit cannot be ruled out. That would almost certainly bring international traffic at Heathrow (and all other UK airports) to a complete halt.

Getting the airport back in operation though would not be that simple. There is not one agreement to deal with, but a host of issues, including the highly technical safety issues, which require formal procedures to resolve. One would see pressure for emergency action but, if the EU stands its ground, it could be several months before full functionality is restored.

After such a break in operations, and the certainty that UK businesses will be looking elsewhere, it would be unwise to expect traffic volumes to be automatically restored. Reduced trade volumes will affect freight and business travellers, while uncertainty over visas and freedom of movement will undoubtedly affect tourism.

There may, on the other hand, be compensating factors such as a substantial drop in the value of the pound, making the UK a more attractive tourist destination, but disruption to air traffic can have a serious effect on forward bookings.

Overall, the effects of Brexit might be to engender considerable disruption, followed by massive uncertainty about the UK's economic performance. And, on that basis, the assessments which went into determining the need for a third runway at Heathrow will scarcely be valid any longer. For the time it took, one might consider it best to put the project on hold until the effects of Brexit are clearer.

For one person though, such a response would be more than ironic. The foreign secretary, who pledged to "lie in front of a bulldozer" – instead of lying in front of everyone and everything else – would have had no need to scuttle off to Afghanistan to avoid the vote on the project. He could have claimed that his disastrous stewardship of Brexit, and his determination to f**k business, had rendered the third runway unnecessary.

What he and his colleagues would be better employed doing, though, would be to get a team together to evaluate, on the basis of the best possible evidence, the most likely effect of a "no deal" Brexit on Heathrow and other businesses. It is outrageous that we should be relying on the European Commission's Notices to Stakeholders for our information, or be forcing business to stand up and deliver public warnings.

Alternatively, they could tell Mrs May to get a grip, recognise that "no deal" was not an option, and start treating the negotiations seriously. There is little time left, and disruption of Heathrow is only going to be the start.

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