Premature Return to Pre-Pandemic Airport Slot Rules Risks Further Passenger Chaos

Mike McBey, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

LONDON – The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has expressed concern that the EU’s proposed return to pre-pandemic slot allocation rules this winter, warning the move is premature and will risk continuing disruption to passengers. And it appears that a failure of oversight on the part of airport management is a key part of the problem the aviation sector has found itself in.

Understanding slot allocation

An ‘airport slot’ is the granted permission to use airport infrastructure (things like runway, terminal, apron, gates). These slots, which are allocated to operators, are necessary for the smooth operation of air services at an airport on a specific date and time for the purpose of landing or take-off and traffic sequencing.

The allocation of slots between air carriers (‘slot allocation’) provides a planning tool. Its purpose is to ensure, where airport capacity is scarce, that available landing and take-off slots are used efficiently.

The “80-20” slot rule

The European Commission has announced that it now intends to return to the longstanding 80-20 slot use rule.

This essentially requires airlines to operate at least 80% of every planned slot sequence. IATA recognises that this system has stood the test of time and airlines are keen to restart services.

However, IATA’s critical concern is that the failure of several key airports to accommodate demand, coupled with increasing air traffic control delays will mean a premature return to the 80-20 rule could lead to further passenger disruption.

A chaotic Northern summer

IATA have observed that the evidence so far this summer has been far from encouraging, and suggest a failing of Airport oversight.

They claim that airports had the 2022 summer season schedules and final slot holdings in January and didn’t evaluate how to manage this in time, stating:

“Airports declaring that full capacity is available and then requiring airlines to make cuts this summer shows the system is not ready for reviving “normal” slot use this winter season (which begins at end of October).”

“The chaos we have seen at certain airports this summer has occurred with a slot use threshold of 64%. We are worried that airports will not be ready in time to service an 80% threshold by the end of October.”

“It is essential the Member States and Parliament adjust the Commission’s proposal to a realistic level and permit flexibility to the slot use rules.”

“Airports are equal partners in the slot process, let them demonstrate their ability to declare and manage their capacity accurately and competently and then restore the slot use next summer,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.

Airport oversight?

IATA’s claim that Airport’s have had this summer’s scheduling for some time does bear some weight. In the most recent Heathrow debacle, which has seen the imposition of severe caps on passenger numbers on departure flights, at least one airline has pointed to this ‘failure to plan’ by the Airport.

This week, Emirates unleased a fiery statement about the proposed capping by London Heathrow Airport, which only gave operators 36 hours to comply.

From Heathrow’s perspective, they claim they have virtually experienced the equivalent of 40 years of passenger growth in the last four months, as travel demand rebounds aggressively.

However, this should not come as a complete surprise, and to support IATA’s concerns, it should be borne in mind that, at least in the case of Heathrow, the Airport had advance scheduling of expected passenger movements through the summer period, provided from late 2021.

Clearly we are living in interesting times.

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