Issues relating to withholding tax have long plagued the Brazilian airline sector. When the special rates of 0% and 1.5% for aircraft rents became ineffective in 2021, the rate soared to 15%, which is the general rate applicable to cross-border leases of any equipment. The latest developments have resulted in confusion, widespread lease defaults and erratic payments from Brazil's airlines.
In June 2020 the Global Aircraft Trading System (GATS) was launched to facilitate aircraft trading and financing by reducing the burden on industry participants – in particular, airlines. Since the GATS relies on the use of trusts, a traditional common law concept, a question arises as to whether the GATS can be used in jurisdictions such as Brazil that are not based on common law.
The COVID-19 crisis has brusquely forced businesses and professionals to close offices and work from home. Luckily, the Brazilian government began implementing measures relating to electronic filings and electronic signatures approximately 20 years ago, all of which have made closing aircraft deals from home offices relatively easy. The Brazilian Aeronautical Registry has adjusted some of its requirements on an interim basis to serve the aviation community by facilitating compliance with necessary formalities and filings.
Brazil's airlines are now being subjected to a withholding tax that has not been charged on most leases for more than three decades. Airlines may be able to successfully challenge the legality of the withholding tax; however, this will require dedication of legal and administrative resources that might have been used elsewhere to fortify the airlines. In any event, under the final text of the law, the likelihood of lessors being liable for withholding tax has been reduced significantly.
A draft law providing emergency relief due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been submitted to the lower house of Congress. The impact of the draft law on the rights of aircraft lessors would be significant and would place into question Brazil's compliance with the Cape Town Convention on International Interests in Mobile Equipment and the Protocol to the Convention on Matters Specific to Aircraft Equipment.
The Federal Government recently issued an executive order with the potential to change the tax treatment of commercial aircraft leasing. Subject to that determination, the executive order sets new rules for commercial aircraft and engine leases. However, the executive order has created considerable confusion and doubts in the aviation sector.
A number of recent aircraft repossession actions have demonstrated that a majority of judges have correctly recognised lessor rights to repossession in the face of apparent lease agreement defaults. However, these decisions have not clearly cited the Cape Town Convention as their basis. The Brazilian judiciary's failure to unify repossession actions against a bankrupt lessee in a single court has meant that some lessors are subject to minority view decisions that can be upheld on appeal.
Following developments earlier in 2019, aircraft repossession has continued to be in the spotlight – yet again with regard to the Oceanair Linhas Aéreas SA (commonly known as 'Avianca Brazil') bankruptcy and, in particular, the experience of lessors that sought repossession of leased aircraft therefrom. In this case, and contrary to Avianca Brazil's pre-bankruptcy experience, a bankruptcy court failed to uphold the express provisions of the Bankruptcy Law 2005 and the Cape Town Convention
In respect of four aircraft that were recently repossessed before Avianca Brazil obtained bankruptcy protection, the Brazilian judiciary and civil aviation agency procedures worked reasonably well and Brazil's overall performance complied with its obligations under the Cape Town Convention. While all four aircraft were exported and de-registered within approximately two weeks, Brazilian customs authorities must still reassess the current export authorisation procedure.
A tax regulation that was promulgated in 2016 has taken effect in ways that are now affecting aircraft lessors and lenders to Brazilian carriers, including by imposing requirements concerning the identification of lessor entities' ultimate beneficial owners and increasing the document disclosure requirements on lessors and lenders in cross-border aircraft finance transactions. While the full impact of the new rules is still unclear, lessors and lenders to Brazilian operators should prepare to comply.
Interchange agreements are relatively new and have been increasingly used by commercial aircraft operators in Brazil. In response to industry requests, the Brazilian Civil Aviation Agency and the Brazilian Aeronautical Registry recently clarified several applicable rules. Due to their novelty, interchange agreements are not always understood in the industry. While such agreements share some similarities with interline and code-share agreements, they have important distinctions.
For the past few months, the Brazilian Aeronautical Registry has experimented with a new electronic filing system that allows parties to file documents electronically 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This system is now operative for documents relating to commercial aircraft. Documents relating to private aircraft, business aircraft and helicopters are still being filed physically. The new electronic system is expected to become available to them during the second half of 2017.
In September 2016 the Brazilian Revenue Service unexpectedly promulgated a change in its treatment of Ireland, which had the potential to wreak havoc on the aircraft leasing sector for the entire country. After four weeks of considerable uncertainty, the changes – as they apply to commercial aircraft leases – were suspended. While the clarifications temporarily resolve the initial concerns regarding commercial aircraft leases, they provide no relief for other important sectors, such as the air taxi sector.
As the revision to the Aeronautical Code is taking longer than expected, the president promulgated interim legal measures earlier in 2016, including one change particularly relevant to air carriers – restrictions on foreign investment in airlines. Although ultimately vetoed, these measures still merit attention, as they are indicative of future legislation.
Brazil's airlines are facing unprecedented economic and financial pressures. With approximately 15 to 20% of their payment obligations fixed in US dollars, they have seen their operational profits drastically decline and are experiencing significant operating losses. Although no airline has sought bankruptcy protection, the risk that a major airline will do so is considerable and lessors should be aware of their rights and risks should this occur.
The Senate is undertaking a serious effort to revise and modernise the Aeronautical Code, which dates back to 1986. Although it is too early to know the special senate committee's final recommendations, the new code is expected to conform to the Cape Town Convention and relax existing restrictions on foreign investment in Brazilian airlines.
A common misunderstanding that arises in Brazilian aircraft finance transactions relates to post-closure requirements as, due to delays, a significant amount of the legal work on a transaction occurs after the closure date. As no magic solutions exist to avoid post-closure issues completely, lessors and financiers must accept that Brazilian transactions may take longer compared with those in other jurisdictions.
For decades, imports of aircraft and aircraft parts have been exempt from most taxes that apply to imports. However, the application of the contribution to the financing of social security tax has recently changed and some tax inspectors have begun applying the tax to aircraft imports. While most industry participants expect the courts to clarify that the tax does not apply to the import of aircraft, it is unclear whether and when this will happen.
The Cape Town Convention has now been in effect for six months, and has thus far been encouraging. The Brazilian Aeronautical Registry has become increasingly proficient at issuing authorising entry point codes. Further, the Civil Aviation Agency has demonstrated its knowledge of the convention and its willingness to enforce it, including deregistration of an aircraft on the basis of an irrevocable deregistration and export request authorisation.
A number of new regulations were recently promulgated relating to the functioning of the Brazilian Aeronautical Registry (RAB). The new regulations are a positive step towards achieving additional clarity on a variety of issues and demonstrate the RAB's responsiveness to the aviation finance community. They will be of interest to both Brazilian operators and non-Brazilian lessors and holders of security interests.