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Brexit and aviation

Brexit and Aviation

Prospect is proud to represent 5,000 air traffic controllers, air traffic systems engineers, licensed aircraft engineers and other technical specialists across civil aviation. The vast majority of our members in the industry are responsible for public safety.
Prospect is concerned that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union has huge implications for civil aviation – perhaps the most ‘European’ of all sectors of the economy. Aviation is regulated at European level and the EU strives to implement the Single European Sky concept. Airspace is increasingly managed across borders and safety regulations are agreed at European level.
But Brexit also presents opportunities. EU regulation of the market has been dysfunctional. A fixation on competition and cost-cutting risks a ‘race to the bottom’ when it comes to employment standards, service levels and, thus, safety.
The government’s negotiating position must retain our role in establishing a safe Single European Sky, while returning control over the market to the UK.


On 23 June 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union by popular vote. Prospect’s Air Traffic Control Officers’ Branch (ATCOs) represents approximately 2,000 controllers working in an industry that is impacted to a significant degree by its current interaction with the EU.

The EU is the single biggest destination from the UK – accounting for 49% of total passengers and 54% of scheduled flights.

The UK is also an important destination for air travel across Europe and thus a source of business for major European airlines.[1] In particular, approximately 80% of all North Atlantic travel flies over the UK or Ireland, an entity known as the UK-Ireland FAB and set up as a result of a European project to deliver among other things, cost savings for the customer.

Prospect's position is to represent and protect our ATCO members –  and the air traffic management (ATM) industry as whole in a future outside of the EU.

There are many variables when it comes to considering the options for UK ATM in the years ahead. There are three basic structures that the UK might wish to pursue in negotiating to leave the EU.

These options are loosely based on models already being employed by countries inside and outside the EU. However, the final outcome of each structure may differ a great deal from that which is initially put forward as it is impossible to say what might be successfully negotiated by each side.

This position paper sets out the three main options for UK ATM outside the EU in chapter 1. The individual practicalities of operational, regulatory and technological interactions between the UK and the EU in the future are set out in chapter 2. In chapter 3, the paper will take a closer look at the social dimension of Prospect's ATCO branch’s relationship with the European Union and in particular with affiliate trade unions at a European level.

[1] The impact of ‘BREXIT’ on UK Air Transport, IATA June 2016

Chapter 1

Three models for the relationship between the UK and the EU

Option 1:

No agreements made with the EU

Under this option, the UK would revert to World Trade Organisation policies and principles and would apply standard International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) rules.

This version of the UK ATM industry after an exit from the EU seems most unlikely. The UK has been closely integrated in European ATM and involved in shaping the future of its aviation industry over many decades. It would seem improbable that it would cut all ties with it.

Additionally, there are many other advantages that come with a close interaction with the EU, including market and economic benefits. For the UK to remove itself completely from the EU aviation market without having negotiated any form of a relationship could well leave the future of the industry in a precarious position. This would also result in a worse relationship with the EU than the one the UK population rejected (ie by being bound by EU regulations without any direct say). Therefore we would argue this would be an untenable position for the UK government to adopt.

Option 2:

European Common Aviation Area (ECAA) membership

The European Common Aviation Area is a membership group of European countries (not necessarily EU members) that is defined by bilateral agreements between the countries dealing with a single market for aviation services.

One model within the ECAA that is easily identified in itself is the relationship that Norway currently has with the EU and its aviation industry – that is full access to the aviation market but with that comes the requirement to apply all EU regulation and legislation with no voting rights on either.

This model presents an improvement on option 1 in that it will continue to allow the industry access to the key aspects of the relationship that will allow UK ATM to continue to grow. However, it is much less democratic in that the UK will have no ability to influence or negotiate with the EU in the proposing and enacting of any regulatory or legislative aspects. This is clearly seen as less than ideal and does not present the most positive way forward for the future of UK ATM.

Option 3:

UK-EU bilateral agreement

This final option is similar to the model used in Switzerland where both parties have negotiated a range of opt-ins and opt-outs that suit their operating structure.

This model would allow the UK some access to the EU aviation market but each individual aspect would have to be negotiated. This is more time-consuming than the previous option and also presents the possibility that the UK would have to concede on items it might otherwise have wished to avoid in order to make gains in other areas. Once more, the UK's ability to influence policy would be limited.


The UK’s unique relationship with Europe, not only in geographic terms, suggests that it would be detrimental for the UK to leave the EU without having established a meaningful relationship with it in terms of industry agreements before an exit is finally made.

ATM is advancing at a rapid rate year on year and the UK has not only helped shape that future within the EU, but it will continue to benefit from many areas of it if such as Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR).

It is vital that the UK ATM model is closely integrated with that of Europe in the future to ensure that it progresses and grows with neighbouring markets. Ideally, the UK would be able to negotiate industry agreements that would best suit its model and in turn unburden itself from those that have presented significant challenges to the industry as witnessed in recent years. Option 3 is the model that has the potential to best achieve this.


Chapter 2

Individual aspects of practicalities of operational, regulatory and technological interactions between the UK and the EU

Notwithstanding the conclusion made in chapter 1, there are several key areas that impact UK ATM at a European level. Prospect ATCOs’ Branch wishes to highlight these areas and will be campaigning for a successful outcome in each of the following.

Single European Sky (SES)

The Single European Sky project presents many advantages and challenges to the future of UK ATM. The concept of integration and reduction of fragmentation is one that will benefit the industry as a whole provided that key stakeholders are involved in the planning and implementation of it. The scheme itself has many streams and ideally the UK would be in a position to strongly negotiate its relationship with the most advantageous parts of it. The UK must negotiate a cooperative model of support to SES where outcomes are in the interest of UK ATM and the wider industry.

Single European Sky ATM Research Project (SESAR)

SESAR is a major public-private, cross-industry initiative and is the technical arm of SES. As the sole operator of overflights in the UK, NATS is a full member of the SESAR joint undertaking. This sets-out to improve technologies within the TMA environment and has already seen benefits in terms of inter-operability with our European neighbours as well as for the customer for example in the XMAN trial.

It is crucial that the UK maintains a key link to technological advances and projects at a European level to ensure that the benefits for the industry – such as technical improvements or economic benefits to the customer – continue to help it grow.

Regulatory framework and the performance scheme

Since 2012, the European Commission has introduced a regulatory framework in support of the Single European Sky. This regulatory framework aims to set and implement targets in the areas of safety, airspace capacity, environment and cost efficiency, typically known as the ‘performance scheme’.

The Branch believes the UK should exit the Performance Scheme. This aspect of SES has seen overly burdensome requirements placed on the industry in recent years. The scheme is unwieldy, too complicated and not tailored enough to individual countries’ needs and unique situations.

Furthermore, the scheme is skewed in favour of airspace users (particularly with regard to cost of service provision) and does not adequately take into account other areas that would benefit traveling citizens.

The performance scheme model does not fit with the UK’s aviation structure and economic regulation should be conducted solely by the UK government. This regulator should be independent of the CAA.

Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs)

The Branch acknowledges that some customer savings and environmental improvements have been gained as part of the FAB project. However, in exiting the performance scheme, it goes hand in hand that the UK must exit the FAB which sets increasingly demanding targets on the industry and its employees.

The Branch affirms its commitment to helping make savings in terms of cost reduction to customers and meeting environmental targets and so as a viable alternative, the UK is called to concentrate on industrial partnerships and other alliances such as Borealis or A6 which can provide the industry with the technological and operational advances it requires to succeed and expand, yet does not bind it by overly difficult targets set at an EU level.

The Branch also wishes to stress that the UK should continue to maintain its relationship with Ireland for control of that portion of airspace in the North Atlantic delegated by ICAO (Shanwick).

European Aviation Safety Agency

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is an agency of the European Commission that oversees regulation, safety and environmental protection in Europe.

Its members include the 28 EU member states as well as the members of the European Free Trade Association (Iceland, Switzerland, Norway and Lichtenstein). These four non-EU members retain as their prerogative the ability to conclude international/bilateral agreements with third parties but they must not contradict the interests of EASA.

These four members do not have the full range of EASA membership entitlements which includes being members of the Management Board without voting rights.

Prospect ATCOs’ Branch notes the concerns with remaining a member of EASA as a non-EU member state, particularly in being unable to directly influence policy. However, the Branch wishes to highlight the following points that are worthy of consideration:

  1. There is a concern that any attempt to return to a UK regulator with full enforcement powers outside the EU will result in a duplication of workload and thus a waste of taxpayers’ money, without perhaps any tangible benefits.
  2. There is an additional concern that the efforts that would be required to return the UK regulator to a full enforcement role outside the EU would be a significant strain on manpower and resources.
  3. The inclusion of the UK within EASA protects the European ATCO licence.
  4. The wider aviation industry will benefit from an aligned approach to regulation, with reduced certification and other regulatory costs, which will in turn benefit UK ATM.
  5. New coordinated and collaborative technology will need a common approach to regulation to ensure fair and competitive markets

Additionally, Prospect ATCOs’ Branch has long enjoyed a close relationship with its affiliate at a European level, the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF).

As discussed in chapter 3, the Branch hopes to continue this close relationship with the ETF and the influential role it has in the European ATM arena.

Through ETF, the Branch will be able to continue lobbying EASA on behalf of its members to ensure their rights are championed, whatever the final outcome of the relationship between the UK and EASA is.

Network Management

The Network Manager is an entity created by the European Commission and delegated to Eurocontrol to ensure the European air traffic capacity and flow management systems work efficiently.

When we consider that the flow of traffic to the UK from Europe and vice versa forms a critical part of the industry, it is essential that the UK continues to be able to provide meaningful input into this project.

Although current representation to the Network Management Board is under the auspices of the FAB which the Branch is calling for the UK to leave, the UK must campaign to remain a vital part of a system that will directly impact the success of future ATM.

The UK’s continued membership of Eurocontrol would ensure that the coordination and day to day operation of the network would continue through the Network Management Operations Centre.


Chapter 3

European social dimension and affiliation

Prospect ATCOs’ Branch is affiliated to the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) at a European level.

The ETF represents more than 3.5 million transport workers from more than 230 transport unions and 41 European countries and so it represents not only members from EU states but also the wider European context (eg geographically).

The ETF is also a recognised Social Partner in European Social Dialogue, lobbying the European Commission and the Council of Europe on important matters and Prospect ATCOs’ Branch is proud to note that it has strongly supported the ETF in these efforts and more.

The Branch will work closely with the ETF in the coming years to fully understand the implications of developments in UK ATM while the UK leaves the EU, and it is committed to remaining a full and influential member with the ETF, continuing to assist it in its work where appropriate.


Chapter 4


Through this position paper, Prospect ATCOs’ Branch has set out an initial and brief summary of the key aspects that are likely to be affected as the UK plans to leave the European Union in the coming years.

The Branch acknowledges that much of what is written is a desired outcome and that some or all of the aspects may have to be negotiated on an individual basis. Nonetheless, the Branch calls on the UK government to ensure that it achieves the best deal so that the ATM industry may continue to thrive in future.

The model that has the best potential to achieve this is a ‘Swiss-style’ integration where the UK government will negotiate aspects of the relationship that suits the market conditions best. Additionally, the Branch calls for UK to:

  1. exit the Performance Scheme and the FAB project, returning to UK domestic regulation
  2. concentrate on individual partnerships in lieu of point 1
  3. negotiate a new relationship within the SES
  4. remain a member of EASA, SESAR and Network Manager

Finally, the Branch will continue to represent its members and champion their rights and considerations at a European level through the ETF.

It is via this platform that the Branch will be able to ensure that irrespective of how the industry relationship between the UK and Europe may look in the future, it will be in a strong position to continue the work that it has achieved to date in a political and social context across the European continent.

International and government affairs team

Prospect ATCOs’ Branch

August 2016