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Pre-allocated slots control air traffic at extremely busy airports.  They prevent delays if too many flights are trying to take off or land at the same time.  The suspension of some regulations relating to slots during the COVID-19 pandemic ensures airlines can keep their allocated slots.  However, there are calls for the reduction of the slots held by British Airways (BA) at Heathrow Airport.

Take-off and Landing Slots at Heathrow

British Airways B777 Loading

Take-off and landing slots at London’s Heathrow airport determine the timings of every flight in and out of the airport.  Airport Coordination Limited (ACL) is the organisation responsible for slot allocation.  The two runways at Heathrow must be amongst the most expensive stretches of concrete on the planet.

The grant of slot gives permission to use the full range of airport infrastructure necessary to operate a flight on a specific date and time to either land or take off.  This includes the runway, taxi ways and parking stands, the terminal building and departure gates.  Airlines can swap and sell their slots.  They often change hands for large amounts of money or other considerations.  An airline risks losing a slot if they cancel it too often.  But the COVID-19 crisis presents a unique situation.

COVID-19 and the Global Suspension of Slot Rules

Concourse at Terminal 5, Heathrow Airport

The retraction in demand for air travel due to travel restrictions, border closures, corporation travel bans, and economic decline has resulted in airlines only being able to offer skeleton services, if any.  New COVID-19 slot rules came into force on 1 April 2020 including the temporary suspension of the rule relating to the loss of slots through lack of use between 1 March 2020 and 24 October 2020.

Call to Reduce the Number of BA Slots at Heathrow

Heathrow is the only airport with landing rights of significant value and BA has just over half those slots.  Their heavily criticised ‘fire and re-hire’ scheme proposed by BA has resulted in calls to reduce  this number.  The airline plans to make 12,000 staff redundant, and change employment terms for the remainder.

British Airways First Wing Lounde at Heathrow Airport

Sharon Graham, executive officer of the Unite Union (represents BA cabin crew) claims “British Airways has lost the trust of its workforce, politicians and the country.”  She went on to say that the only way BA could retrieve its reputation as the world’s best loved airline and protect its lucrative landing slots is to retract its proposal and enter sensible negotiations with its staff.

A spokesperson for BA has countered this threat by saying: ​“We are acting now to protect as many jobs as possible. The airline industry is facing the deepest structural change in its history, as well as facing a severely weakened global economy.”

Are slots now being used as a means of coercion?

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