Predictably, airlines and airports are at loggerheads over a decision by the European Commission (EC) to set the threshold for slot usage at 50 percent for the winter air travel season under the so-called “use it or lose it” rules governing carriers’ rights to retain slots. The decision, confirmed late on July 23 by EC President Ursula von der Leyen, extended the relief from the standard 80/20 rule under which airlines have been required to use at least 80 percent of the time or risk losing slots to competitors. The EC suspended the rule in late March 2020 to take account of Covid’s impact on flight schedules.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expressed strong dissatisfaction with the EC decision under its Regulation 95/93. The airline group repeated its demand for “a much lower threshold” and accused EC officials of being “out of touch with reality.”
However, the Airports Council International Europe welcomed the 50 percent threshold, expressing the hope for a further increase for the 2022 summer season in anticipation of a full restoration of the 80/20 by the 2022 winter season. In a July 26 statement, the group described the EC’s decision, which will apply to flight schedules between Oct. 31, 2021, and March 26, 2022, as “a proportionate response.”
Arguing that international travel from European airports will recover to only 34 percent of 2019 levels by the end of 2021, IATA said that airlines need continued relaxation by allowing airlines to hand back slots at the start of each season “to match their schedule to realistic demand or enable other carriers to operate.” The group also complained that the EC decision effectively removes force Majeure provisions allowing for the suspension of slot rules due to exceptional Covid-related circumstances for flights within the European Union (EU).
In its 10-page ruling, the EC presented a lengthy analysis of air traffic statistics over the course of this year, based on Eurocontrol data. In justifying the 50 percent threshold, officials said they expect the Covid vaccine to be “fully effective” by 2022, and, therefore, they expect traffic levels for the 2021/22 winter season to return to around 70 percent of those in the same period in 2019.
However, IATA maintained that the prognosis reflects an overly optimistic assessment of intra-EU flights. The group said bookings for the next winter season remain well below those seen last winter and that long-haul bookings for the EU now average just 20 percent of 2019 levels.
“The airline industry is still facing the worst crisis in its history,” said IATA director-general Willie Walsh. “The commission had an open goal to use the slots regulation to promote a sustainable recovery for airlines, but they missed. Instead, they have shown contempt for the industry, and for the many member states that repeatedly urged a more flexible solution, by stubbornly pursuing a policy that is contrary to all the evidence presented to them.”
By contrast, ACI Europe, whose airport members have been uneasy over the loosening of slot rules on the grounds that that makes it harder for them to maintain viable operations, praised the EC for what it characterized as “cautious optimism.” It predicted that a combination of increased Covid vaccinations and the rollout of measures such as the EU Digital Covid Certificate for travelers will result in demand stabilization and more predictable travel volumes.
“The aviation sector, having been brought to its knees by the pandemic, can and must now embrace and build on the green shoots of recovery,” said Olivier Jankovec, ACI Europe’s director-general. “And while a return to 2019 passenger levels remains a distant vision, our ‘new normal’ does increasingly come with growing levels of stability, thanks to vaccination, certification, and testing protocols. This means a gradual return to slot usage rules, following much-needed temporary relief in a time of crisis, is now appropriate.”
However, ACI Europe also repeated its previous calls for a wider review of the 28-year-old slot allocation rules, which it called “wholly inadequate for today’s market.” It argued that the need to amend measures on an emergency basis during times of crisis demonstrated the inefficiency of the regulations.
As of early July, the EC had been expected to raise the threshold to 60 percent. That suggests that EC officials felt the need to make some sort of compromise in the direction of the airline position.