Ryanair fears UK could lose access to EU's Open Skies

Ryanair Chief Executive Officer Michael O'Leary attends a Ryanair press conference in Dublin, Ireland April 12, 2016. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ryanair fears that Britain’s plans for withdrawal from the European Union could result in the loss of access to the EU’s Open Skies deregulated aviation market in as little as two years, Chief Executive Michael O’Leary said on Tuesday.

The flexibility afforded by the Open Skies policy introduced in 1997 has been key to Ryanair’s growth into Europe’s largest airline by passenger numbers. A third of Ryanair’s 120 million passengers fly from UK airports.

“We worry that the price of remaining in Open Skies will be the UK accepting freedom of movement of people ... I think that may be unlikely, in which case we may be heading for a very hard Brexit,” O’Leary told journalists in Dublin.

“I don’t think it is possible to get interim arrangements through 27 European parliaments in a two-year period, so the British will fall off a cliff in two years’ time.”

O’Leary said that Ryanair will continue to move capacity to other parts of Europe but warned that uncertainty around Brexit could affect demand across the continent.

“There will be slower UK growth but also slower European growth,” he said, adding that a so-called hard Brexit would be “a catastrophe for the UK economy but also for neighbouring economies”.

Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by David Goodman