Come March 29, 2019, Great Britain is due to leave the European Union. So far, the opposing sides of the change—those who favor leaving without making any border or trade deals, and those hoping international partnerships are maintained—have not reached agreement on the specific terms. And time is running out.
A “hard” 2019 Brexit is possible and nebulous, and even a “soft” negotiated-borders deal will likely result in some changes.
Weighing a Hard Brexit in 2019
What will this mean for visiting the U.K. and Europe, specifically? Here’s what American travelers who plan to visit Britain and the E.U. next year need to know.
Deal or not, the actual process of traveling from the U.S. or Canada to Britain will remain largely (if not completely) the same, given North American relationships with the U.K. aren’t directly affected. Traveling between Britain and Europe will also probably change very little, if any: Britain never joined the Schengen “open borders” system for travel throughout Europe, so those traveling between the England and Schengen countries—virtually all of Europe—must already go through passport control. Britain obviously never adopted the Euro, and although the pound hit a 31-year low following the Brexit vote, England’s currency has bounced back strongly.
So except for a few adjustments in passport control lines, the experience of travel between Europe and Britain will essentially remain as it is. The biggest Brexit repercussions are likely to be for trade and possibly for Europeans living and working in the U.K.—not tourists. But questions remain.
Travelers’ Rights and Airline Structure
The most significant potential travel change falls under international travel rights. After Brexit, trips within Britain and on British-based airlines would no longer fall under E.U. consumer protection rules. Those rules—most notably compensation for delays—are much stronger than American rules, and European and British airlines call them too strict. The post-Brexit British government could decide to write its own new rules, and you can bet that the British lines will press hard for less generous traveler compensation for delays. But there is a chance England could maintain the current formulation.
Although even a no-deal Brexit would have a minimal impact on the way visitors tour through the area, a no-deal Brexit could have a substantial impact on the structure of the airline business and the way airlines operate in the area. Among the key problems:
Foreign Ownership Limits: As in the U.S., European countries limit the amount of foreign ownership allowed for airlines headquartered in-country. When the E.U. was considered one country for airline purposes, these limits raised no problems. But if the remaining E.U. and Britain are separate, airlines based in both areas could face problems.
Ryanair, based in the E.U. (Ireland) operates a lot of British flights, for example. And EasyJet, based in Britain, operates a lot of E.U. flights. IAG owns airlines that are based in both Britain and the E.U., including British Airways, Aer Lingus, and Iberia. These and other lines have already established alternative corporate bases in both areas, but a hard Brexit could still pose many ownership problems and even demand major restructuring.
Traffic Rights: Currently, E.U. airlines enjoy “open skies” for trips within the region. But if Britain leaves, there is a serious possibility that British-based lines would have to negotiate traffic rights with either all of the E.U. or even individual E.U. countries. And there’s no guarantee that both sides would readily agree to continued, unlimited traffic rights. A hard exit could result in substantial loss of individual air routes, like the competitive budget ones that have made transatlantic travel so much cheaper in recent years.
Air Traffic Control and Safety: As with traffic rights, a separate E.U. and Britain might instate requirements for mutual overflight requests. Again, in a hard Brexit there’s no guarantee that all the players would agree. Which could add yet another layer of problems to a traffic control function already burdened by fragmentation—and this could add to flight delays.
Presumably, no kind of Brexit would result in a meaningful difference in safety standards. But safety issues could result in downstream problems with accident investigation, certification of new airplanes, and other safety standards.
The chance of a hard exit remains substantial. Both sides have dug in on their positions, and nobody has yet floated a promising compromise proposal. Clear heads would point to the necessity of a soft Brexit as the many changes are navigated, but clear heads don’t always prevail in political matters.
It’s even still possible that Britain will reverse Brexit entirely: Several prominent British voices are calling for a new Brexit vote. And a hard Brexit could add fuel to the fire of Scottish succession: The last vote was close, and Scotland and Northern Ireland have been vocal about wanting to remain in the E.U.
Hard or soft, Brexit will almost surely add at least some complexity and barriers to travel between Britain and Europe. That means likely fare increases and reduced competition for travelers, even in the softest Brexit. But the picture will become clearer as we approach March.
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.