Europe Extends 80/20 Slot Rule Suspension For Winter Season

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The European Commission has today made the announcement that many European airlines were waiting to hear. It has confirmed that it will be extending the waiver of the 80/20 slot rule through to the end of the winter season. This will protect airline’s slots until March 27th next year, avoiding unnecessary ghost flights and allowing carriers to plan their winter schedules.

The decision will allow airlines operating out of congested airports to plan their winter schedules. Photo: KLM

Slot waiver granted

The European Commission has today announced its intention to extend the waiver on slot rules at congested airports through the entire IATA winter season. This will see the 80/20 requirement canceled through to March 27th, 2021, avoiding airlines operating ‘ghost flights’ just to keep their slots.

European Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean said that,

“Today’s report shows that air traffic levels remain low, and more importantly, they are not likely to recover in the near future. In this context, the lack of certainty over slots makes it difficult for airlines to plan their schedules, making planning difficult for airports and passengers.”

The slot waiver has been guaranteed by the Commission, giving airlines the information they need to dig in and build their winter schedules. Today’s decision follows a strong call earlier this month from IATA, ACI Europe, A4E and other industry bodies for the Commission to take action.

Heathrow runway queue
The ruling will prevent ‘ghost flights’ from taking place. Photo: Getty Images

Similar waivers have been in place in other parts of the world. Last month, Hong Kong extended its slot waiver until March next year, and over the weekend, the FAA said it favors an extension of the slot waiver at US airports.

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What does this mean?

Under normal circumstances, some of Europe’s biggest and busiest airports are thoroughly oversubscribed. Airports such as Heathrow in London and Schiphol in Amsterdam have more demand than they can accommodate, meaning the airport has to be slot controlled.

This means airlines are given specific slots for landing and taking off, slots that they need to use in order to maintain their ownership. The usual rules say that the slots must be used for 80% of the time at a minimum; otherwise the airline could lose the slots for the following season.

When demand plummeted due to COVID, airlines were faced with either operating empty planes or risking the loss of their valuable airport slots. To solve this problem, the European Commission granted a waiver to the 80/20 rule back in March, which allowed airlines to let their slots go unused without risk of losing them.

Take off queue Heathrow
Slots are used to manage arrivals and departures at busy airports. Photo: Phillip Capper via Wikimedia

Back then, the industry hoped for a return to semi-normality by the winter season. However, things are still pretty tricky, with border closures and worries about second waves making passengers reluctant to fly. As such, this extension of the waiver will come as a great relief to airlines trying to figure out their winter schedules.

Problems with the slot waiver

Although the Commission has agreed to extend the slot waiver, it has also made it clear that abuse of the system has been noted and will not be tolerated. Airlines should only keep hold of those slots which they intend to operate in the next equivalent season. Still, there have been accusations that some may be holding on to slots that they never intend to operate again, just to stifle the competition. Vălean commented on the situation, saying,

“The initial slot waiver – adopted in the early days of the crisis – has allowed airlines to make financially sound decisions on whether to run flights, as well as avoid ghost flights. Nonetheless, our report also highlights certain problems with the current waiver, which are preventing airlines from using airport capacity efficiently.

“Slots are not always relinquished in time for other users or airports to plan operations as they would like; competition may also be distorted if airlines seek to benefit by increasing their market presence without using their slots and airport capacity correctly. Such behavior can hamper competition and can, therefore, harm EU passengers and freight customers. This must be remedied.”

wizz-air-a321
Wizz Air previously complained that the waiver was not being fairly used. Photo: Wizz Air

She further said that she hoped airlines would abide by the agreed conditions voluntarily throughout the winter season, pending the adoption of enforceable conditions. This is due to the fact the Commission wants to grant the waiver extension right away, before the enforcement action can be formally adopted.

IATA previously said that an agreement had been reached with airlines, slot coordinators and airports to ensure the fair use of the waiver throughout winter. Let’s hope they can stick to it.

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