UK-EU Charter Operators Face Uncertain Future

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There is confusion over the availability of block permits with nations on the list issued by the CAA. One of the nations said to have made block permits available is Spain, but operators have been unable to obtain one thus far. 

"We've applied for a Spanish block permit but they're just not issuing them yet," says Derek Thomson, commercial director of Air Charter Scotland, an operator based in Glasgow. He describes an application process in three phases: obtaining TCO certification; getting accreditation from the Spanish authorities, which involves submitting a security plan and getting that approved; and then applying for the block permit itself. The company's security plan was approved in late January. 

"Since then we've been asking to get a block permit," Thomson says, "but [the Spanish regulator] has come back and said 'That's not available at this moment, but you can apply on a flight-by-flight basis.' So that's what we've been doing, for coming up to three months."

Thomson says the Spanish authorities have been responsive to per-flight permit requests, often issuing them well within the 48 hrs. they have given themselves to process permit applications. However, the permit office--as is generally the case across the continent--only works during standard office hours, making late-notice flights at weekends or during public holidays impossible. 

Twidell says around 50% of the flights in any given week on PrivateFly's system are booked within two days of departure. 

Working around these issues involves different levels of compromise. Thomson says his company has taken a leaf out of the low-cost carrier playbook and is offering discounts to customers who book far enough in advance for per-flight permits to be obtained. Air Charter Scotland has also set up a subsidiary based in Malta, with its own AOC, which will carry out all the company's intra-EU flights. 

This was by no means an easy decision. Thomson estimates the direct costs incurred are in excess of £150,000 and notes that crews for the EU-registered aircraft have had to transfer their qualifications to Denmark because, post-Brexit, pilots with third-country licenses are not allowed to fly EU-registered aircraft. The process was also quite lengthy, with work beginning in the middle of 2020--months before the withdrawal agreement was reached on Dec. 24th, confirming that an EU AOC would be useful. 

Unsurprisingly, many UK operators have not opted to establish bases in the EU. The challenges they are facing remain considerable, even with the wider availability of block permits. 

Alex Durand, CEO of Norwich-based charter and aircraft-management firm SaxonAir, estimates that around 20% of the company's business pre-Brexit came from intra-EU flights. However, he says, the impact on revenues may be greater. 

"We would go job-to-job," he says, of how the firm operated in Europe before Brexit. "How many flights did we pick up because we had, say, a Cannes to Rome booking? Maybe we picked up a London to Cannes flight. That's a great unknown to me. If that 20% is more realistically 30% or 40% because we're not getting linked work, that does become a problem. I'm very uneasy about it."

The relatively low demand due to COVID-related travel restrictions means that companies cannot accurately assess the true impact of the post-Brexit changes. Should the decline in work turn out to be above 20%, Durand says SaxonAir may exit the international charter market. 

"We're looking at evolving our business so there's less exposure to having an AOC," he says. "I know another operator that has given up its AOC. We don't need any more difficulties. The fundamentals of operating a chartering company in the UK is that these [aircraft] are high-utilization assets, and 80% activity probably makes the difference between whether it's worthwhile owning or not. If you can't have that confidence, I think we're going to see a reduction in the aircraft we operate."

For cargo operators and brokers, the availability of block permits with many EU nations is welcome; but the weight restriction remains a bone of contention. This, coupled with limited opening hours of permit offices, means that operators flying short-notice cargoes into the UK are sometimes having to split larger loads across multiple smaller aircraft, adding significantly to the end-user's costs, but also creating extra carbon emissions. The 10,00kg MTOW limit is a particular issue as it excludes the platform that is carrying out the majority of ad hoc cargo flights across the continent.

"On our platform data, we can see the Saab 340 is the most commonly used aircraft in Europe for time-critical cargo flights," says Ed Gillett, co-founder of CharterSync, a cargo brokerage platform that matches operators with freight-forwarding services. All flights by that type therefore require an individual permit, which can only be issued when the relevant permit offices are open and have available capacity. This is leading to significant frustrations.

 "We had a flight confirmed on our system from the UK to a European country, and the aircraft was already positioned at the point of departure," Gillett says. "But because they were over the maximum takeoff weight we needed to get a permit. The permit was subsequently refused, and In the end, the client had to pay almost three times more for an aircraft to position from Europe into the UK to take the cargo off the aircraft that was all ready to go, because [the operator of the second aircraft] happened to have a block permit."

While the current situation is better than some had feared ahead of the deal in December, the restrictions caused by the UK's exit from the EU remain significant. Twidell, Humphries and Hogben, in particular, are fulsome in their praise for the CAA and the negotiating teams that have been working on bilateral deals with the 27 EU nations--but that does not mean the problems are solved. 

 "It's less terrible," says Durand. "But less terrible isn't good." 

Negotiations will continue, but progress may not be particularly swift. It seems inevitable that the significant extra frictions experienced in UK-EU operations will cause casualties, and likely that the majority of those will be UK-based rather than EU-based.

"If you look at other bilateral aviation agreements, historically speaking, you're talking years to agree the details," Hogben says. "Obviously, the situation that the UK and Europe find themselves in catalyzes a much quicker response, and what's been achieved so far is good progress. But for UK operators, whether the speed of that progress is sufficient to not impact their business in the longer term is probably quite questionable." 

Ultimately, many UK operators may feel they are back where they were last year--larger and better-resourced firms weighing up whether they need to set up an EU-based subsidiary, and smaller companies mulling whether to stay in the business at all. 

"This could change the landscape of the aviation market in the UK," says Hogben. "If you don't have those smaller carriers that in many cases provide flexibility and competitiveness in the market, you'll end up either with consolidation, or companies going out of business. Once we start to move out of COVID travel restrictions and government support starts to be removed, that will probably be the tipping point for a lot of carriers that are struggling with the operational landscape.”

Angus Batey

Angus Batey has been contributing to various titles within the Aviation Week Network since 2009, reporting on topics ranging from defense and space to business aviation, advanced air mobility and cybersecurity.