Political deadlock over Brexit could halt flights between the UK and Europe, according to the chief executive of Ryanair, who warned that Britain’s aviation industry is being “walked off a cliff” by the government.
Michael O’Leary said that “mildly lunatic optimism” on the part of the government was masking the risks the UK faced from leaving the EU, with an assumption that it could quickly negotiate new bilateral agreements.
O’Leary said it was a “plausible risk” that no bilateral deal for the airline industry would be forthcoming in time. “Everyone is underestimating in the UK the political situation in Europe. You can see a set of circumstances on the day of Brexit when nobody is flying between the UK and Europe. Even interim arrangements have to be approved by the European parliament.”
At the Airport Operators Association conference in London, O’Leary lambasted ministers for acting “like Dad’s Army”. He said: “These guys have no idea where they’re going for the next two years and the problem is that in the absence of any discussions with the Europeans on Brexit they’re all talking to themselves.
“They haven’t got a clue. There is no prospect of an interim deal.
“If you listen to the Germans, the Dutch or the French you’re going to get screwed into the floor.”
Speaking on Monday at the conference, transport secretary Chris Grayling gave an assurance that aviation would be “prioritised” in Brexit negotiations.
But O’Leary said that a meeting last week between industry leaders, including Ryanair, the Brexit minister David Davis and aviation minister Lord Ahmad, had confirmed his fears for the sector.
He countered: “That’s what they say to all the boys ... They clearly have no priorities.”
O’Leary warned: “The European airports have seen this an opportunity to win more business away from the UK. Unless there’s some significant change the UK is going to walk itself off a cliff.”
He said that for planning airline schedules, “I need to know by March next year what’s going to happen in Britain in summer 2019. There isn’t a politician who knows that.”
O’Leary’s warnings were echoed in more sober terms by a Brussels-based international airports association. Olivier Jankovec, the chief executive of ACI Europe, warned that there was a lot of “wishful thinking” from ministers and the aviation industry.
He said: “A lot of people might assume in the end it will be fine. At present it is still somehow wishful thinking. The UK will have to negotiate the terms and conditions and won’t be covered by EU agreements. It is doubtful that some airlines will be able to fly freely.”
Jankovec said that hopes of a special deal for aviation to remain in the EU single market for aviation could be thwarted. “I wish we could single out aviation and separate it but from what I’m hearing in Brussels things don’t look like they are going this way.”
Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways’ parent company, IAG, said he was less concerned about the effects of Brexit but warned: “Our negotiating position is not as strong as people might think. I do think that Europe will see this as an opportunity to damage the UK.”
He said that in a bilateral deal over flying rights struck last month with China, “we didn’t get very much of what the UK wanted. That worries me.”
However, he said there was no prospect of BA’s owning group being broken up after Brexit, as O’Leary had suggested. Walsh said that IAG had “tested and robust” structures in place to deal with restrictions on international ownership of airlines.
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