Airport and airline industry organizations are urging aviation regulators to adopt more flexible rules on valuable take-off and landing slots to help preserve air service in many communities, while also making some accommodation to low-cost carriers trying to gain more access to big, hub airports.
On Thursday, the International Air Transport Association, Airports Council International and an association of slot coordinators recommended the current suspension of use-it-or-lose-it flight quotas through March be extended until September 30, the end of the busy summer flying season in the northern hemisphere.
Under normal circumstances, airlines can lose allocated slots to competitors at congested airports if they don’t use them at least 80% of the time. IATA has aggressively sought to relax slot rules ever since the coronavirus pandemic brought passenger travel to a trickle in March, saying financially battered airlines can’t afford to defend all-important airport access by operating money-losing flights. Airports have argued for case-by-case relief rather than blanket waivers, while budget-carriers complain slot rules prevent them from expanding and that IATA’s legacy members use them to keep out competitors.
Slot-regulated airports serve almost half of all passengers and anchor much of the scheduled airline networks. Companies share space in large passenger aircraft to move goods, especially for international trade, and any loss of airport access to leisure-style airlines could reduce the available pipeline for direct shipments to major airports.
IATA has argued that if airlines lose slots they may not be able to restore long-haul routes and maintain connections between city pairs. About 65% of direct city-to-city connections disappeared in the first quarter of 2020. Flight banks at hub airports require a certain number of slots on each end. Early morning arrivals, for example, enable passengers to connect to a large number of flights.
Leniency on slot use is needed because international air traffic is only expected to return to about a quarter of 2019 levels by next summer, IATA says.
The Worldwide Airport Slot Board (WASB) compromise calls for airlines that return a full series of slots by early February to be permitted to retain the right to operate them in the summer of 2022. It also lowers the threshold for retaining slots for the upcoming summer season to 50% and it doesn’t count non-use of a slot against an airline if the inactivity is due to short-term border closures or quarantine measures imposed by governments.
“It is vital that regulators quickly adopt the WASB proposals on a globally harmonized basis. Airlines and airports need certainty as they are already planning the 2021 Summer season and have to agree schedules. Delays in adopting new rules will further damage the industry at a time when industry finances, and 4.8 million jobs in air transport, hang by a thread,” said IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac in a statement.
“Creating a globally-compatible approach to the crucial issue of airport slots is an important part of underpinning a recovery of aviation. The united position of the air transport industry on what needs to be done to protect connectivity and choice in the best interests of passengers is a clear signal to regulators of the extreme urgency of the situation,” said Luis Felipe de Oliveira, director general of ACI World. “Action is needed now as any delay makes recovery for air transport, and the global economy, more difficult. We need regulators to recognize the crisis we are in and act with speed and flexibility.”
Upstart carriers Ryanair and Wizz Airlines told Reuters the adjusted slot rules were unsatisfactory, saying they don’t incentivize airlines to operate flights and will keep fares high. But easyJet, another European budget, said it favored the compromise.
In early October, the U.S. Department of Transportation extended until March 27 a waiver of minimum slot rules at five major international gateways, as long as foreign countries offer reciprocal treatment for U.S. carriers, in order to give airlines maximum operational flexibility. It also waived rules at New York LaGuardia and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, both slot-controlled airports that primarily serve domestic destinations.