Protecting Heathrow Slots: British Airways Considers Dropping Gatwick Operations

Andre Wadman (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2 ), via Wikimedia Commons

LONDON – It comes as no surprise to anyone that the Coronavirus pandemic has hit the aviation industry hard.

According to EUROCONTROL although all European airports have been affected in the past year, London Gatwick Airport has been hit the hardest, with daily arrivals and departures down a staggering 92% compared to 2019.

Last year saw various airlines temporarily suspend flights from the second-busiest UK airport at the peak of the virus, including British Airways (BA). Although some have returned since BA is currently reviewing their operations at Gatwick in order to preserve their slots at London Heathrow.

Why make the move now?

With Heathrow being the largest Airport not only in the UK but also in Europe, it has extremely strict rules regarding their much sought-after slot times. Both Gatwick and Heathrow operate with the rule “use it or lose it”, in which airlines must use 80% of their maximum possible flights.

If they don’t, the slot is taken away from them, ultimately allowing other airlines to apply and take the slots off them.

Anna Zvereva from Tallinn, Estonia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Covid-19 ultimately halted this rule in 2020; a ruling by the European Commission, ACL, responsible for overseeing slot allocations at the major UK Airports, and Grant Shapps, the UK’s Transport Secretary, issued a waiver allowing the 80/20 rule to be relaxed.

This meant airlines wouldn’t have to operate “ghost flights” in order to keep their slots, allowing them to preserve their money at a time where travel was very limited. Grant Shapps described the waiver as “a critical part” of resuming international travel.

Heathrow slots, although some of the most expensive in the world, are extremely valuable, especially due to the airports’ global flight connections. However, BA could struggle with having enough flights to keep their Heathrow slots if the 80/20 rule returns, especially if they’re also still operating out of Gatwick.

With the summer and winter seasons approaching, and aviation slowly returning to pre-pandemic levels as we start to come out of Coronavirus restrictions, the tough decision needs to be made.

John Taggart from Claydon Banbury, Oxfordshire, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

BA has not commented on the pending review, but it seems the orders are coming from the International Airlines Group (IAG), BA’s FTSE 100 parent company, owners above. IAG Chief Executive Luis Gallego recently told analysts they are “analyzing the different options” saying that “It’s true we have the issue with the slots …. Gatwick has some strategic value, but we need to be competitive here”.

The future of Gatwick

2021 was never going to be any easier for the aviation industry than 2020 and BA pulling out of Gatwick permanently could be another devastating blow for the Sussex airport.

According to reports, a BA spokesperson has said “we are still flying some of our long-haul flights from Gatwick” but that “until the end of October, most of our short-haul flights will continue to operate from Heathrow.”

Anna Zvereva from Tallinn, Estonia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“This enables us to ensure a smooth, uninterrupted, and efficient operation across our business at a time when demand is yet to return and international travel restrictions remain in place.”

With more slots now potentially up for grabs in the future, and seemingly more long-haul airlines such as Norwegian and Virgin Atlantic pulling out, could this see Gatwick welcoming more low-cost and short-haul flights?

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