The Aviation Law Review: Editor's Preface

The Aviation Law Review continues to be among the most successful publications offered by The Law Review, with the online version massively increasing its reach within the industry not only to lawyers but to all those involved in the various aspects of management touched by laws and regulations that, from certain jurisdictions, flow like a river in full spate. Now that subscribers to Bloomberg Law and Lexus Nexus have access online, that of course has also significantly increased the readership.

This year I welcome a new contribution from Turkey, and extend my thanks and gratitude to all of our contributors for their continued support. I would emphasise to readers that the contributors donate very considerable time and effort to make this publication what it has succeeded in being; the premier annual review of aviation law. All contributors are carefully selected based on their knowledge and experience in aviation law. We are fortunate indeed that they recognise the value of the contribution they make and the value of the Review that it enables.

Notwithstanding the risks posed by new variants, at the time of going to press at least the threats posed by covid-19 to the world and the aviation business sector seem to be beginning to recede in some parts of the world, while others continue to languish where vaccinations have yet to become available, and where vaccine hesitancy is encouraged from dark alleys in social media up to the level of irresponsible political figures around the world. The damage wrought on aviation has been particularly severe consequent upon the grounding of airlines, the closure of airspace and the uncertainty as to when, and to where, flights may safely be taken. So far as lessors are concerned, attempts by lessees to moderate their financial exposure by reliance upon the pandemic by arguing that contracts have thereby been frustrated have been denied in several courts. As yet, no decisions have crossed my desk regarding operating leases, and decisions in respect of them will, of course, depend upon the terms of those leases. While there have been some bankruptcies, the majority of carriers have managed to cling on to financial life by virtue of reliance on governmental support, although this has not been routinely and equally available throughout the world.

In last year's preface I referenced the difficulties encountered by Boeing with regard to the damage to its reputation as well as the reputation of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) following the 737 MAX grounding. It was eventually, after extensive modification, declared safe to fly, but then came under renewed scrutiny six months later as a result of a potential electrical problem that led to the renewed grounding of more than 100 aeroplanes belonging to 24 airlines around the world in April 2021. The practice of the major aviation authorities around the world of accepting the type certificates of other regulators appears likely to be the most enduring victim of this debacle, with airworthiness authorities under very considerable pressure to make sure for themselves they are satisfied with the certification of aircraft manufactured in other countries. The European Air Safety Authority has been under a particular spotlight in this respect and, according to European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Executive Director Patrick Ky:

we have a bilateral safety agreement (between EASA and the FAA) that was signed some time ago, under which the direction had been taken to reduce more and more the level of involvement of EASA on FAA-approved projects. Of course, given those tragedies for which we have seen, we have stopped this trend and we will increase our level of involvement and our independent review of US projects in order to build our own safety assessment of those projects.

The impact of Brexit on aviation continues to be worked out, although the EU–UK agreement on the subject came into force alongside the trade agreement in 26 pages of the 1,449-page text. The agreement provides in broad measure that traffic rights between the UK and EU are preserved, cabotage rights are removed, cargo fifth freedoms are permitted allowing cargo to be on carried from one European destination to a third country, and vice versa, subject to bilateral agreements between the UK and the individual Member States of the EU. Ownership and control restrictions require that airlines must be owned and effectively controlled by nationals in their headquarters and that airlines must have their principal place of business in their own territory and hold an air operator's certificate from the competent authority in their own jurisdiction. There is an exception to this in that UK airlines are permitted to be effectively controlled by nationals of the EU, the European Economic Area or Switzerland. This ownership provision is echoed in the UK–US bilateral agreement permitting UK airlines to be owned by EU nationals while operating from the UK to the US. Clearly, the principal beneficiary of these provisions is British Airways, owned by IAG headquartered in Spain, which also owns other EU airlines.

The UK is no longer part of EASA, but there is close coordination between the Civil Aviation Authority of the UK and EASA as well as mutual recognition of licences.

The EU–UK agreement also touches upon the thorny and troublesome issue of EU 261 in that it aims for a high level of consumer protection and cooperation between the EU and the UK in this area. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 provides that regulations such as EU 261 are automatically incorporated into UK law, being known as retained EU law, unless and until they are revoked by an Act of Parliament. The regulation itself, therefore, continues to apply unless and until it is changed by the UK Parliament. That power does seem currently unlikely to be exercised among the myriad issues falling to be addressed by the newly empowered Parliament, although the opportunity may arise if the long-promised review of EU 261 in Europe is finally brought forward by the Commission for decision, when the issue could at least be debated. One can but hope that the regulation will be made more compliant with the terms of its preamble and original content before it is subjected to the legislative whims and activist fancies of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). However, decisions made up until 31 December 2020 will be retained in the UK and will be binding at least at first instance level, with limited powers given to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court to depart from past case law. Decisions after December 2020 will not be binding but will continue to be persuasive. The extent to which the UK will depart from ECJ case law has already been reviewed in two Court of Appeal cases, Tuneln v. Warner and Lipton v. BA Cityflyer. The Court of Appeal held that the power to depart from ECJ decisions should be used as an exception only, and that in the first case actually applied to a post-Brexit ECJ ruling in reaching its decision. In Lipton, the Court set out a list of matters to be considered in determining its approach. These early decisions seem at least to indicate that the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court will require significant reasons to exercise their inherent power to depart from the law promulgated by the ECJ.

In the meantime it is clear that the Court of Justice of the European Union continues on its rampage against the safety, security and financial viability of aviation by its latest decision on the subject in the case of Air Help v. SAS of 23 March 2021. In this case, the Court has held, against the recommendation of its Attorney General, that a strike organised by a trade union of the staff of an air carrier that is intended in particular to secure pay increases does not fall within the concept of an extraordinary circumstance capable of releasing the airline from its obligation to pay compensation for cancellation or non-delay in respect of the flights concerned. The Court relied on its earlier decisions to the effect that in order to qualify as extraordinary, the event must not be inherent in the normal exercise of an air carrier's activity, and must be beyond its actual control, because the regulation has to be strictly interpreted to afford a high level of protection for air passengers and because the exemption from the obligation to pay compensation is a derogation from the principal that air passengers have the right to compensation.

As so frequently in the past, the Court has made these comments by ignoring some elements of the preamble to the regulation in favour of others, and misinterpreting other elements of the preamble so as to make the payment of pocket money to passengers take priority over the obligation imposed on Member States to procure general compliance by air carriers with the regulation and appoint an appropriate body to carry out enforcement tasks. In other words, states should make sure operators do not wrongly delay or cancel flights, with compensation being paid in the limited circumstances set out in the regulation, and not as a device to punish errant carriers or to jeopardise their financial viability. It cannot be said too often that the payment of compensation does not protect passengers and can be carried to extremes and, as in this case, actually jeopardise connectivity and safety.

In an act of particular judicial gymnastics in its SAS decision, the ECJ held that Preamble 14, which specifically states that extraordinary circumstances 'may, in particular, occur in cases of . . . strikes that affect the operation of an operating air carrier', did not assist SAS in the current case because a strike, as one of the ways in which collective bargaining may manifest itself, must be regarded as an event inherent in the normal exercise of the employer's activity and that, therefore, a strike whose objective is limited to obtaining an increase in pilots' salaries is an event that is inherent in the normal exercise of that undertaking's activity. The Court also, extraordinarily, held that 'since a strike is foreseeable for the employer, it retains control over events in as much as it has, in principle, the means to prepare for the strike and, as the case may be, mitigate its consequences'. In a continuing feat of legerdemain, the Court held that just because a carrier may have to pay compensation to passengers for cancellations or delays does not mean that the carrier has to accept without discussion strikers' demands. The air carrier 'remains able to assert the undertaking's interests, so as to reach a compromise that is satisfactory for all the social partners'. The effect of the decision, of course, is to hand to unions a weapon in their armoury of almost nuclear capacity to destroy the undertaking altogether unless its demands are met, since failure to comply leads to what are increasingly becoming ruinous levels of obligations to pay 'compensation' to passengers in respect of cancelled flights. It is becoming increasingly difficult to escape the conclusion that the ECJ has a covert purpose of the destruction of the airline industry in Europe, but it is hopefully difficult to imagine that this decision is one that the UK Court of Appeal would follow without demur.

Airlines in Europe need to stand together to resist the continued assault of the regulation on their very existence, for without such unity, to paraphrase Aesop, division can only produce disaster.

Once again, many thanks to all our contributors to this volume including, in particular, those who have joined the group to make The Aviation Law Review the go-to resource.

Sean Gates
Gates Aviation Ltd
July 2021

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