DfT reinstates 70% slot use rule from end of March – with some flexibility for future Covid impacts

The Department for Transport has announced that airlines will have to hand back airport take-off and landing slots if they were not used 70% of the time from March 27th, for the summer period, up from the current threshold of 50%. Before Covid, airlines had to use 80% of their slots, or risk losing them. This limit was removed entirely for the first part of the pandemic, but reverted to 50% use. Airlines have warned they will be forced to run empty or half-empty and polluting “ghost flights”  in order to meet the 70% limit, even if there is not enough demand for flights. This makes no sense, in terms of trying to reduce carbon emissions from the sector. However, the DfT has said there will be more flexibility, so airlines will be allowed to miss the 70% limit if there are real Covid travel restrictions in future, limiting travel.  Airports like Gatwick are keen to have a high slot use requirement, so airlines that can  not meet the quota have to relinquish slots to others – thus new airlines can start up routes. But for the airlines, high slot use requirements mean losing money – and higher CO2 emissions. They are against the re-imposition of high slot use requirements.


Government supports aviation sector recovery with airport slot alleviation for summer 2022

Move gives aviation sector flexibility and protects environment as airlines will not have to operate ghost flights to retain airport slots.

Department for Transport, Robert Courts MP, and The Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP

Published   24 January 2022

  • government extends alleviation of airport slots usage rules with adjusted ratio of 70:30 for the summer 2022 season   [The summer season begins on the last Sunday in March and ends on the last Sunday in October.]
  • airlines will have to use their slots 70% of the time to retain their rights to them, providing support as demand for flights continues to returns to pre-pandemic levels
  • change provides further support for aviation sector recovery, increases flexibility and protects the environment as airlines will not have to operate carbon-inefficient ‘ghost flights’ to retain their slots where markets are substantively closed

The UK government has today (24 January 2022) laid regulations before Parliament that will extend the airport slots rules alleviation for the upcoming summer season, supporting the aviation industry as demand for international travel returns.

Airlines will need to use their slots 70% of the time in order to keep them, but will also benefit from added flexibility over when they are justified not to use them, for example, where a market is substantively closed.

If this alleviation wasn’t provided, the usage threshold would default back to 80:20 with no additional flexibility on justified non-use, increasing the risk of ghost flights.

Following a period of consultation with the sector, the extension of alleviation from slots rules will further support its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic as air travel returns to normal levels.

This aims to balance the need for continued support for the aviation sector’s finances, providing airlines with enough flexibility to adapt to changing restrictions and concerns around new variants, while ensuring slots get used where demand allows.

It also takes advantage of the UK’s new freedom to set its own slots rules after leaving the EU, to whose rules we were previously tied.

As part of this, the list of situations where airlines can claim justification for not using their slots is being widened further. As in the current winter season, this will cover situations where COVID-19 related restrictions at either end of a route result in severe reduction in demand. However, for the summer 2022 season, it will no longer be necessary for the airline to show that the measures were unforeseeable.

This means airlines won’t need to make the choice between running environmentally damaging ghost flights and losing their historic slot rights where markets remain closed as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, while also protecting long-term connectivity. For example, airlines would be able to apply for this measure if a country requires hotel quarantine or closes hotels or restaurants as a result of COVID-19.

In such circumstances, the regulations allow the airline to keep their historic rights to the slots even if passenger demand does not justify operating the flight.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said:

Leaving the EU has allowed us to take back control of our airport slots rules, giving us greater flexibility to balance the needs of our magnificent aviation industry as it faces up to the pandemic.

Today’s extension marks a step back towards normal rules, helping the sector to recover and grow as travel returns while protecting it against any future uncertainty.

Aviation Minister Robert Courts said:

Since the onset of the pandemic we have provided relief from the slots usage rule to provide financial stability to the sector and prevent environmentally damaging ghost flights.

As demand for flights returns, it’s right we gradually move back to the previous rules while making sure we continue to provide the sector with the support it needs.

This is the latest initiative introduced by the government to support the aviation sector. It follows the removal of the temporary, extra testing measures introduced for Omicron in November 2021, which has made travel easier and cheaper for fully vaccinated passengers and has provided a big boost for the travel industry as we enter the peak new year booking period.

Airport slots are used to manage capacity at the busiest airports. A slot gives permission to use the full range of airport infrastructure (runway, terminal and gates, for instance) necessary to operate an air service at an airport on a specific date and time.


Shake-up to end polluting ‘ghost flights’

Ministers accused of ineptitude on landing slots

By Robert Lea, Industrial Editor (The Times)

January 24 2022

Plans by ministers aimed at helping airlines to navigate the aviation sector recovery and avoid controversial so-called “ghost flights” have been condemned by the industry as “ineptitude by an out-of-touch government”.

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, will lay new regulations before parliament today relaxing use-them-or-lose-them regulations on airlines’ take-off and landing slots.

Under longstanding rules airlines need to use at least 80% of their take-off and landing slots at an airport or risk losing all their flying rights. Those rules were abandoned during pandemic travel restrictions when fleets were all but grounded. [Currently 50% have to be used]

As the industry navigates its way back to normality, Shapps is reintroducing the rule but with a 70% threshold. The minister said he had been able to do this because of Brexit. “Leaving the EU has allowed us to take back control of our airport slots rules, giving us greater flexibility,” he said.

He said that the temporary rules for the summer would stop airlines being forced to operate scheduled services — typically all but empty — simply to retain flying rights. These ghost flights have attracted condemnation for wasting fuel and increasing carbon pollution.

It was argued, most notably, by Gatwick, that if the rules were not reinstated, weaker airlines would sit on their slots and not operate many of them, blocking rivals from gaining flying rights. Gatwick said that it would harm competition and consumers. [Only because with more airlines, consumers could get even cheaper flights, and fly even more, doing even more damage to the global climate and the future prospects for life on earth. AW comment]

Airlines had cautioned, however, that to reinstall tighter rules would endanger the recovery of airlines, most of whom remain financially constrained by the pandemic, and could lead carriers to fly ghost flights simply to fulfil their take-off and landing quota and not lose their flying rights.

The installation by Shapps of a 70% rule has incensed Willie Walsh, the former boss of the British Airways group IAG, who is now the director-general of IATA, the international airlines association. He said that the UK’s new temporary regime was more restrictive than the European Union, which has a 64% rule in place. He said that far from stopping ghost flights the new rules would encourage them.

Willie Walsh said the new proposals made a mockery of government claims to be supporting the recovery of the airline industry

“The UK government decision on slots, proposing the highest slot-use threshold in the world, makes a mockery of their claims to be supporting the recovery of the airline industry and to be champions of the environment,” he said. “This is yet another example of administrative ineptitude from an out-of-touch government.

“It is particularly disappointing to see the government has failed to exploit its self-proclaimed ‘Brexit dividend’. On the contrary, it has put in place a more restrictive slot regime than the EU.

“The government is condemning airlines to operate thousands of flights at low capacity, which is environmentally stupid.”

Gatwick is less unhappy, saying that the UK compromise was sensible and that it signalled support for airlines and showed that airports were open for business.



See earlier:


European airlines having to fly empty flights due to continuing slot use requirement

During the height of the Covid pandemic, the EU suspended the normal slot allocation process for airlines, that had forced them to use at least 80% of their slots – or lose them. The aim is to ration space at busy airports. During Covid, most airports had below half as many flights as in 2019.  Now the EU has decided to start reinstating the slot use rules, and in December the European Commission set the threshold to 50% for the winter travel season.  Lufthansa Group, which includes Brussels Airlines, Austrian Airlines, Eurowings and Swiss said it would have to run18,000 unnecessary flights from mid-December to mid-March to comply.  That is crazy in terms of carbon (and airline costs, for zero benefit).  Lufthansa said it plans to cancel 33,000 scheduled flights by the end of March because of a slump in demand caused by Omicron.  In the US, slot rules are still suspended. In the UK the partial suspension (50% use) continues until the end of March 2022. Greenpeace called the empty flights “absurd” and pointed to “a new low for the sector that is kept afloat with government support”.

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