The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has called for urgent action from the UK and European Union to put a backstop contingency plan in place to ensure the continuation of air services in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The global airline industry body released a new study into potential air transport issues in the wake of Brexit on 24 October, which flagged three “critical” areas that still need to be addressed: the uninterrupted continuation of air connectivity; the framework for regulating safety and security; and the policies and processes needed for efficient border management.

IATA has been urging negotiators to reach an early resolution for aviation since late 2017, noting that Brexit had thrown “all traffic rights to the rest of the world associated with Europe” into question. A “high degree of uncertainty and risk to air services” will remain even in the best case scenario where negotiators for the UK and the EU agreed a Brexit transition phase, IATA said in its report last week, adding that, in the event of a “no-deal” or “hard” Brexit without such an agreement, there will likely be “significant disruption to air services”.

Airlines have been left “completely in the dark as to what measures to take” due to a “lack of transparency” concerning contingency planning for such a scenario, it said.

In a statement, IATA’s director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said that the UK and the EU “have a responsibility to millions of their citizens who depend on reliable air transportation”.

“The goal should be a comprehensive air services agreement that does not step backwards from the connectivity existing today,” he added. “But with the possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit still on the table this late in the game, it is now essential [to] plan for contingency arrangements to maintain a minimum level of connectivity, which is vital for people and for business.”

“This has to be one of the most important Brexit considerations,” he concluded.

Clyde & Co partner John Balfour in London told ALN that IATA is “right to be concerned and call for urgent action” but added that “as regards continuity of services at any rate, the situation may not be quite as dire as suggested by the report”.

He said the most likely effect on Britain’s aviation industry of a hard Brexit would be that UK airlines would no longer have “automatic access” to EU routes. The same would be true for EU airlines landing, departing or travelling through UK airspace. However, he stressed that “this is not to say that services would have to cease” as existing bilateral agreements between the UK and other EU states that existed prior to the establishment of the EU single air transport market are merely “dormant” and have – in most cases – not been terminated.

Balfour noted some of these agreements “constitute sufficient legal basis for the continuation of most or all current services, although many bilaterals are quite old and restrictive, and would provide only a limited legal basis”. It might be possible for the UK and other states to “amend and update them on a bilateral basis”, he said, and even if “a solution is not provided in this way, it is possible that existing services could continue on the basis of the legal and diplomatic principle of comity and reciprocity, under which the existing status quo can be permitted to continue on an informal basis”.

IATA also called for the UK to remain a member of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) – at least as a third country – in any Brexit scenario, and for EASA and the UK Civil Aviation Agency (CAA) to be allowed to initiate detailed technical discussions on the future relationship between the two bodies.

Professional licences, standards for materials and parts, and other safety regulations should be “put in place to come into effect immediately” after Brexit, IATA said, asserting that aviation security for both passengers and cargo would be highly impacted by a no-deal Brexit, and that all parties should work towards a deal where the current status quo – in respect of security measures – is maintained.

Balfour explained that “the simplest form of agreement would see the UK continuing to be treated as part of the EU for the purposes of all aviation legislation”, noting that Norway and Iceland enjoy similar treatment as they are part of the European Economic Area (EEA).

However, those countries also accept most other aspects of EU law, including freedom of movement, which the UK has been reluctant to include in a post-Brexit agreement. The EU may be equally reluctant to permit the UK to participate in the EU air transport market without accepting freedom of movement and other aspects of EU law, Balfour said.

Another possible model would be “the sort of aviation agreement that the EU has concluded with other countries, such as the Balkan states . . . or the US or Canada, although these fall somewhat short of full access to the EU market,” he concluded.

IATA further warned that a no-deal Brexit could increase “the likelihood of EU travellers being added to already over-long queues at UK passport control” and suggested creating a “third lane” to process passengers from the EU faster. In either scenario, it cautioned, investment would be needed to recruit and train more staff.

The situation regarding the transport of goods is more complex, IATA said, as there is “almost no clarity on customs arrangements”, but the most likely scenario is that, even with a transition period, shipments will be delayed or disrupted as new customs procedures are established.

“Interference with the movement of people and goods will have a major and immediate knock-on impact to economic activity in both the UK and the EU,” de Juniac said. “Solutions to minimise disruption are of paramount importance. We must have clarity on future border and customs arrangements now, if we are to plan for an orderly post-Brexit situation.”

A spokesperson for the CAA told ALN that its priority in planning for a potential no-deal Brexit is “maintaining safety and maximising continuity and stability” for passengers and aviation companies.

The agency and the government’s “long-standing preference” is that the UK remains part of EASA, they added, but said that as a “responsible regulator” the CAA must plan for the “possible outcome of a non-negotiated withdrawal”.

In this scenario, the British government would incorporate all current EU air transport safety regulations into UK law, allowing the CAA to continue recognising EASA-issued safety licences and approvals for up to two years following Brexit. The spokesperson urged the EU to “follow suit by ensuring there is mutual recognition of aviation approvals issued under both EU and UK regimes”.

“This is strongly in the interests of consumers and businesses in both the EU and the UK,” they said, as “bringing EU aviation legislation into UK law would also mean that we maintain existing levels of consumer protection for passengers”.