Bosses of the Arabian Gulf’s three biggest airlines expressed varying degrees of concern about the impact on the travel industry in the event of the United Kingdom leaving the EU, after the referendum this month.
Airlines around the world are watching British voters’ decision closely. If Britain were to leave the EU, it means that bilateral agreements between the country and the rest of the EU would have to be renegotiated.
Equally, the open skies deal with EU countries will be invalid if Britain chooses to exit the union.
Tim Clark, the president of Emirates airline and a British national, said that a Brexit would destabilise the aviation industry, hurt his business and create a “shock wave”.
“If the Brits decide to exit the EU, the shock waves throughout the EU as it stands today will be pretty severe in my view,” said Mr Clark during a round-table at the International Air Transport Association (Iata) annual meeting in Dublin last week.
“For somebody who is running a business that has very, very high demand in our European countries and cities, to see destabilisation wouldn’t serve any purpose at all,” he said, adding that about 30 to 40 per cent of Emirates’ business comes out of Europe. “It’s vital for us.”
Mr Clark conceded that the airline business could adapt to the new reality.
“I am forever the optimist and would personally like to think that sense will prevail and this destabilising effect will not happen,” he said. “If there’s one thing the airline industry can do, it can adapt.
“We’ve been a little bit disingenuous … We are far more capable of dealing with disruptions, big or small, than we were 20 years ago,” he added.
James Hogan, Etihad Aviation Group’s president and chief executive, said that a Brexit vote is “making people nervous”.
“People just don’t travel, people would sit at home,” he said.
Despite the alarm expressed by chiefs of the UAE’s two big airlines, the Qatar Airways chief executive, Akbar Al Baker, said that whatever the result, people would continue to travel.
“I think the people of Britain will make a decision that is very wise,” he said. Mr Al Baker said that regardless of the outcome, Qatar Airways will continue to fly to the UK. Qatar Airways is indirectly a stakeholder in British Airways via its 15 per cent ownership in IAG, the parent company of BA and the Spanish airline Iberia.
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