The UK decided to return its airport slot rules almost back to 2019 levels, ahead of the summer. Is this the end of the pandemic for aviation?
This has been one of the themes of the pandemic, dating back to the first lockdowns. When aviation came to an abrupt halt, airlines faced the consequences of what was up to then a logical rule. But it was something that absolutely wouldn’t work during the pandemic. And while everyone agreed it had to go at first, it became a point of contention just months later.
This is about airport slot rules, in the UK, the EU and much beyond. We have previously looked at this issue in some detail in the past. In essence, it has to do with how airlines secure the ability to fly into (and out of) busy/desirable airports. A “slot pair” is a landing and a take-off. An airline needs such a slot pair, to move into a new airport.
Airlines often pay a lot of money, to secure slots at primary airports in European capitals. Desirability can vary depending on the time of the day, or the day of the week. The difference between arrival and departure time matters, too. Long story short, it is quite difficult to get some good slots, and those that have them, want to keep them. But the UK, the EU and others have some rules, on how an airline can keep (or lose) an airport slot.
“Use It Or Lose It”
The “use it or lose it” rule is fairly self-explanatory. Airlines had to actually use these slots, in order to keep them. The rule was that if they didn’t use at least 80% of their allotted slots, airlines would start losing them. This ensured that no airline “squatted” on slots, to keep its competitors at bay. And it also ensured that airports got the fees that they rely on, to stay economically viable.
Obviously, the pandemic caused the US, the UK, the EU and others to waive the airport slot rules. Not doing so would have meant that airlines would need to fly empty aircraft, merely to satisfy the rules. All airlines agreed to waive the rules at the time. But later in 2020, the matter started becoming somewhat less unanimous. This is because some airlines could ramp up operations much faster than others.
The airlines that didn’t like waivers on airport slot rules in the UK and elsewhere were those without long-haul operations. It also helped if they had good finances, enabling them to return to operations sooner. As we have seen, long-haul is picking up the pace slower, with some analysts not expecting full recovery for another year.
This means that the lines on slot waivers are drawn between flag carriers and low-cost carriers (LCCs) – with some caveats. Most LCCs were eager to get going early, eyeing the possibility to expand their route network and market share. And most flag carriers, with considerable long-haul operations, dogged by ever-changing international travel rules, weren’t.
UK Returns Airport Slot Rules To Normal Levels
Authorities extended slot waivers again and again, around the world. But it was a matter of time before someone cancelled airport slot waivers first. The UK didn’t quite bring airport slot rules back to the pre-pandemic 80-20%. But the 70-30% that the country is introducing is a big leap, compared to the 50-50% rule currently in place. The new measure is coming very soon, from the 27th of March.
The UK government believes that a move closer to normal airport slot rules will boost air travel in the summer. Naturally, some carriers complain that this could force them to fly aircraft with lower capacities. There is also some uncertainty, regarding the crisis in Ukraine and how it could affect future demand for flights. We have seen how flights between Europe and Asia are suffering from the closure of Russian airspace.
Incidentally, Russian airlines are already losing airport slot pairs in the UK and elsewhere, with or without these rules. Other carriers, still flying to and from the UK, are not happy. Flag carriers complain that they expect international capacities to average below 70% in the 2022 summer season. Low-cost carriers generally are more optimistic.
Airports are also optimistic that pent-up demand is there, and support moves to increase travel. Time will tell who is right. With the Ukraine crisis developing and some Covid restrictions still in place in parts of the world, a lot could still change between now and the summer.