Ministers’ failure to prioritise agreement on aircraft certification standards in Brexit negotiations is threatening the future of the UK’s £34bn-a-year aerospace sector, according to the head of an industry trade body.
“We are now at that critical point where political decisions on the negotiating priorities with Europe need to be made,” said Tony Wood, president of British trade association ADS and chief executive of aerospace supplier Meggitt.
He added that the aerospace industry “absolutely requires a comprehensive bilateral agreement with Europe if we are to preserve our position at the top table and number two position in the world”.
Aerospace executives are frustrated that the government has focused on fishing rights in Brexit negotiations, hindering a wider trade agreement that would help protect the industry’s more than £30bn in exports.
Mr Wood said there appeared to be “higher political priorities in other industries”.
“But it is time to choose,” he said. “The aerospace and defence industries underpin 375,000 jobs in the UK and they are some of the best-paid jobs in engineering and advanced manufacturing.”
Many in the sector fear that failure to strike a bilateral agreement will add cost and complexity to the certification process, just as the industry reels from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and embarks on the biggest technological change since the invention of the jet engine.
Aircraft and aero-engine makers are investing heavily in hybrid-electric and hydrogen-powered flight, in an attempt to achieve the industry’s pledge to be net carbon neutral by 2050. Airbus has said it aims to launch a green aircraft by 2030.
Currently, responsibility for certification lies with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, which has mutual recognition agreements with regulators around the world. If there is no deal, however, all UK-designed parts, components and systems for aircraft will become invalid in the EU on January 1.
Big companies such as Rolls-Royce have already shifted design functions out of the UK to the EU to avoid the extra cost. But smaller companies in the supply chain do not have the resources to set up EU-based design offices.
The industry is anxious that once the transition period for Brexit ends on December 31, the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority will not yet have sufficient competence to certify the existing and new technologies. “In my view, it is going to take five years for the CAA to become as fully capable as Easa is today, in order to be mutually recognised,” Mr Wood said.
Another senior aerospace executive said: “There is a question as to whether the CAA will be a good enough regulator in what will be a potentially transformational period for global aviation.”
The CAA insisted it was prepared for the demands of certification regardless of whether there was a bilateral agreement or not. Deals to ensure mutual recognition of safety inspections have already been signed with the US, Canada, and Brazil, although these include a period of “confidence building”.
Tim Johnson, director at the Civil Aviation Authority said: “Since the 2016 referendum, we have been preparing to take over design certification responsibilities for UK companies as we leave the European system for aviation safety. We look forward to playing our part in enabling new and existing aerospace technologies in the future.”
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