BRUSSELS/LONDON, March 21 (Reuters) - European airports on Tuesday called on Britain and the EU to agree a back-up plan for post-Brexit flying should they fail to agree a new relationship before Britain quits the bloc, saying a return to decades-old traffic rights deals should be avoided.
European Union-based airlines have the right to fly to and from any country in the bloc or even within other member states thanks to the single aviation market created in the 1990s.
Britain's vote to leave the EU means it has to renegotiate that access, but the ruling out of sectoral deals by EU officials has rattled the aviation industry, which has to plan flight schedules well in advance and cannot rely on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, unlike other sectors.
ACI Europe - the trade association representing Europe's airports - said it was concerned about the lack of back-up or transitional plan should Britain and the EU fail to agree a new relationship within the two-year time frame provided for in EU treaties.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has said that no deal is better than a bad deal with the EU, but for aviation, in the worst case scenario the uncertainty could ground planes.
"As responsible businesses, at this stage we simply cannot rule out a cliff-edge scenario for Brexit and aviation," ACI Europe Director General Olivier Jankovec said in a statement.
"This means that adequate contingencies need to be established promptly in case the UK would exit the EU without any agreement on its future relationship with the bloc."
Airlines last week called on Britain to provide clarity on post-Brexit flying arrangements given that flight schedule planning for summer 2019, when Britain is due to be out of the EU, will begin in a year's time.
The absence of a deal governing flying rights between the EU and Britain after the 2-year negotiating period ends could mean airlines having to rely on older, more restrictive bilateral provisions between the United Kingdom and the other 27 EU member states, ACI Europe said.
"We would prefer not to fall back on those bilaterals, but to get some sort of transition agreement that what we have today can be safeguarded. But what we are hearing is that if there is no agreement, there is also no transitional agreement," Jankovec told journalists in London.
Britain said on Monday it would send Brussels its official exit notification on March 29, triggering two years of negotiations. (Editing by Ruth Pitchford)