Flight plan: easyJet and other airlines could be badly affected by Brexit / Simon Calder

After the triggering of Article 50, the UK is in the departure lounge, destination unknown. Simon Calder tackles the difficult and unanswered questions about the impact of Brexit on travellers, from cheap flights to health care

Will we lose the right to cheap flights?

The no-frills revolution which began in 1995 has seen the UK’s easyJet and its Irish rival Ryanair become the giants of budget aviation. Both airlines have vast pan-European networks that take advantage of the “open skies” arrangement that allows any carrier to fly on any route within the EU. 

This may continue, but Willie Walsh, chief executive of IAG — which owns British Airways, Aer Lingus and the Spanish airline Iberia — said: “I fear Europe will see this as an opportunity to damage the UK.

“The idea we're just going to go in and say 'here's what we want, now give it to us,' is naive.”

​Ryanair, whose biggest nation for operations is Britain, campaigned strenuously for a Remain vote in the EU Referendum. On the day Article 50 was triggered, it warned that the UK could be left without any flights to/from Europe from March 2019 unless talks for a bilateral deal are concluded swiftly. The airline's marketing director, Kenny Jacobs, said: “It's become worrying that the UK Government seems to have no plan B to maintain Britain's liberalised air links with Europe. 

“Ryanair, like all airlines, plans its flights 12 months in advance, so there are just 12 months to go until we finalise our summer 2019 schedule, which could see deep cuts to our flights both to, from and within the UK from March 2019 onwards.”

EU officials have warned UK airlines that they must move operations to the one of the remaining 27 countries if they are to continue to fly intra-European routes. Both easyJet and Ryanair are likely to set up subsidiaries — easyJet in Europe, Ryanair in the UK — in the hope that they can continue to fly more or less as they do now. But it is possible that Italy, for example, with a weak national carrier in the shape of Alitalia, might block open skies for post-Brexit Britain. Bilateral treaties would need to be negotiated, adding a vast amount of complexity and cost. 

It could even impact transatlantic flights. UK-US open skies are a subset of the European Union's access arrangements, and may need to be renegotiated.

But John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow, believes: “We do have a strong negotiating position.

“In aviation there is a consensus to maintain open skies and common standards. The government sees aviation as the enabler to all other industrial sectors.”

What happens to our passports from now onwards?

Existing British passports bear the statement “European Union” at the top of the front cover, in accordance with EU policy on travel documents. It is likely that every UK passport issued between now and the day we formally leave the EU will do so. All will be valid for the full 10 years (or five for children) as normal. But even though the document remains the same, its power will wane from the day we leave: it will cease to be an EU passport. 

The replacement UK passport will be identical in size to the existing EU document; this is stipulated by the International Civil Aviation Organization based in Montreal, not by Brussels. So anyone who voted “Leave” hoping for a return to the days of an old hard-cover British passport is sadly mistaken. 

How will border formalities change on trips to Europe?

With an EU passport, as the British travel document currently is, there are currently minimal formalities. If you’re travelling to Europe by ferry or train, you just need to show your UK passport. Airlines have to collect “advance passenger information” to provide to national governments for security purposes, but the process is light touch. And of course British passport holders can use the “fast-track” lanes for EU citizens and a few other lucky nationalities. 

But after Brexit, red tape for travellers is likely to get significantly more tangled, with UK passport holders needing to apply online to visit Europe.

The European Commission has ambitious plans for a European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS). This is aimed at nationalities who currently don’t need visas — including UK citizens after Brexit.

The plan is largely to emulate the Esta scheme that the US set up in the wake of 9/11 to evaluate prospective visitors. You are likely to have to go online to enter all your personal data (name, date and place of birth, etc) and details of the travel document you plan to use. 

According to the latest proposals, you will also need to answer questions “relating to public health risks, criminal records, previous refusals of entry/an order to leave the territory of a Member State”.

Your data will then be compared a whole range of security databases before a decision is made about whether you can apply for entry.

Having been granted permission, your problems are probably only just beginning. The Commission is also proposing an entry-exit system (EES) that “will apply to non-EU nationals, both those that require a visa and those that are exempted, travelling to the Schengen area.” Travellers will have to submit to fingerprint checks and to having their photograph taken. This will increase the cost as well as complexity of holidays and business trips.

It is likely that users will need to pay for the cost of the service. Experience with the US Esta scheme as well as similar initiatives indicate that scam websites will blossom, charging many times the correct sum.

Besides tougher passport control, travellers can expect more scrutiny from customs officials, both travelling to Europe and returning home. The “blue channel” may cease to exist, and strict limits re-imposed on goods that can be taken across borders. 

 

Could duty-frees make a comeback?

Yes, that is very likely. Since 1999, travellers have had no rights to duty- or tax-free purchases if they are remaining within the EU. After Brexit, Europe will revert to the same status as the rest of the world — with travellers able to buy cheap drink and tobacco in limited quantities for transportation abroad.

 

What will replace the EHIC scheme?

The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) is one of the more tangible benefits of European Union membership. It entitles all EU citizens to public health care on the same basis as local people in all other countries in the union. 

The “same basis” generally means nearly free medical treatment, with some charges made in certain countries for things like prescription drugs.

At a Brexit Select Committee session, Labour’s Hilary Benn asked the Brexit Secretary, David Davis to confirm that UK citizens would no longer have access to the EHIC. Mr Davis responded “I think that’s probably right,” and conceded “I haven’t looked at that one.”

Abta,the travel association, maintains that Brexit should not mean that we lose reciprocal medical care rights — and gives the example of Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU but which is a member of the scheme.

My sense is that the scheme is unlikely to continue. It is a cost to the Department of Health, and the Government would prefer for travellers to be properly insured — though this is a personal choice rather than an individual entitlement.

If that happens, travel insurance premiums will rise in line with the cost of claims. Older people, particularly those with pre-existing medical conditions, will be disproportionately affected.

 

What about mobile phone roaming charges?

All extra charges for phone calls, texts and internet use on mobile phones within the EU will be eliminated by this summer

Once the UK leaves the European Union, it is uncertain what deal, if any, might replace it. Certainly, mobile-phone providers would welcome the chance to reintroduce roaming charges for British visitors to Europe and Europeans coming to the UK.

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