By Julia Fioretti
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - British airlines will lose all flying rights to the European Union if there is no transition agreement after Brexit, the EU executive said on Tuesday, a stark reminder of the risks facing the aviation sector if there is no deal.
In a notice to all airlines, the European Commission said UK air carriers would no longer enjoy traffic rights under any air transport agreement to which the EU is a party, meaning they would no longer have the right to fly to the EU and between its member states.
They would also lose flying rights under agreements between the EU and third countries, such as the U.S.-EU Open Skies agreement.
Airlines based in the EU have the right to fly to, from and within any country in the bloc thanks to the single aviation market created in the 1990s, but Britain now has less than two years to renegotiate access or come up with an alternative system.
British carriers include easyJet, British Airways, Flybe, Jet2 and Virgin Atlantic.
Budget airline easyJet has already moved to establish a new airline in Austria to protect its flying rights within the EU once Britain leaves the bloc.
Airlines have been vocal about the risks posed by the no-deal scenario and have urged London and Brussels to quickly provide certainty for the industry.
Without a deal airlines would have to rely on a decades-old traffic rights accord between the UK and EU states. These are typically more restrictive and do not allow airlines to fly within member states.
Britain and the EU clinched a divorce deal last Friday, paving the way for them to start talks on future trade ties and a two-year Brexit transition period that will start when Britain leaves the EU on March 29, 2019.
However, Brussels has ruled out a separate deal just for aviation on the grounds that it would be tantamount to cherry-picking.
The note also says EU carriers would lose their flying rights to or from Britain granted by a third country under any air transport agreement to which the EU is a party.
Similarly, carriers from third countries would lose the right to fly to or from Britain under agreements negotiated by the EU.
U.S. airlines such as Delta, United Airlines and American Airlines have been lobbying the EU and Britain to strike an agreement on aviation, fearing that a failure to do so could jeopardise the antitrust immunity granted to their transatlantic joint ventures as well as their ability to fly passengers to the EU via London Heathrow.
The British Airline Pilots' Association (BALPA) said the Commission's note was cause for great concern.
"Here it is in black and white from the EU Commission – UK flights to the EU will be grounded in March 2019 should no agreement be reached," said Brian Strutton, general secretary of BALPA. "We need the UK Government to sort air traffic rights now. Once again, no deal is not an option.”
(Additional reporting by Alistair Smout in London and Victoria Bryan in Berlin; Editing by Gareth Jones)