Expert insight

Droning on

17 April 2019

We look at the impact of aviation disruption and drones on the business traveller.

Flight disruption is an expensive business. In 2018, business travellers lost more than half a million days to delays at Britain's ten busiest airports, at a cost of over £500m, of which Heathrow and Gatwick accounted for £350m.

Not all flight disruption is caused by flight delays. On top of the frustratingly regular air traffic controller strikes that dog various countries’ airspace, last summer Ryanair cancelled over 650 flights due to their pilots and cabin crew striking over pay and working conditions.

 

Drones

In December, Gatwick was forced to close its runway following sightings of drone activity, impacting more than 1,000 flights and 140,000 passengers during the notoriously busy Christmas period.  In January, further drone incidents at Gatwick and one at Heathrow forced further temporary closures.

In February the same problem occurred at Dublin airport. The failure of the police to catch the culprits involved in any of these incidents makes it highly likely other UK airports will be targeted in the future.

Drone-related delays and cancellations cost Gatwick almost £20 million in lost revenue and other associated businesses such as retailers, hotels and taxis a further £2m.  Around 82,000 easyJet customers were affected and 400 flights cancelled, costing the airline £10m in customer welfare costs and £5m in lost revenues, as more travellers cancelled their flights.

For airlines and airports, these forms of disruption damage balance sheets and reputations. For the business travellers affected, the true cost includes missed meetings, lost productivity, heightened stress levels and potentially other health risks.

 

Brexit

As if that’s not bad enough, IATA says that up to 5m flights could be at risk if the UK leaves the EU without deal as flights from the UK are capped.

The aviation association says there is “real uncertainty” about not only flights after Britain leaves the EU, but over passport validity too. Then again, there has wholesale disaster-mongering before; remember the Millennium Bug and the Corporate Manslaughter Act? Predictions of planes falling from the skies and the jails overflowing with disgraced executives proved more than wide of the mark, and we hope the same will apply to Brexit.

Airlines like easyJet have invested in life after Brexit. The low-cost carrier reports strong demand despite the spectre of a no-deal Brexit, saying, “We are well-prepared for Brexit and we feel confident that flights will continue without disruption”, adding ominously “we can’t speak for other airlines.”

Those preparations included setting up a sister company, EasyJet Europe, in Austria in 2017, where it has registered 130 aircraft. Despite the EU and the UK both committing to ensuring flights will continue, easyJet has also been relocating spare parts and staff paperwork to ensure all certification remains recognised by Europe.

A major barrier to uninterrupted flights between Britain and the EU issues is that the British government wants the EU and UK to accept each other's aviation standards. However, the EU has not yet done so and will stop recognising UK safety standards if there is a hard Brexit.

"If the UK leaves the EU…with no agreement in place, UK and EU licensed airlines would lose the automatic right to operate air services between the UK and the EU without seeking advance permission," the government has said, pointing out that disruption is “not in the EU's interests.”

According to Airlines UK, which represents 13 UK-registered carriers, the European Commission has said it would put in place a "bare bones" aviation agreement with the UK to keep planes flying and to cover safety issues.

Then there are flights between the UK and 17 non-EU countries, such as the US, Canada, Switzerland and Iceland, to consider. Currently these services operate because the UK is an EU member. The UK has already reached agreements with some of these countries and is "confident the remaining agreements will be agreed well in advance of the UK leaving the EU" – according to the government.

What seems certain is that UK passengers will undergo extra security screening when changing flights in the EU after Brexit. Currently, neither passengers nor their luggage are usually rescanned when connecting at other EU airports after flying from the UK. This will change if the EU fails to recognise the UK's aviation security standards after Brexit

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