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Government extends waiver of airport slot rules

The government has extended a Covid-era waiver of slot rules at airports through this summer but increased the ratio of slots that airlines must use.

Airlines will be required to use or lose 70% of their take off and landing slots at the UK’s biggest airports in a significant change from the 50% requirement this winter, but not yet a return to the 80% use-it-or-lose-it slot rules pre-Covid.

However, the government has included a provision that airlines do not have to operate flights in line with this requirement where there are Covid restrictions at either end of a route.

The rules apply at the main London airports, Manchester and Birmingham.

Normal slot-use rules were waived in the UK and across the EU from March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the waiver extended through last winter.

The UK maintained the waiver through summer 2021, when the EU reverted to a 50-50 slot-use requirement, before aligning with the EU at 50-50 for the current winter season.

The EU recently confirmed it would require 64% slot use this summer.

The government announced the 70-30 requirement for the summer this morning, confirming it had laid the necessary regulations before Parliament. Airlines’ summer schedules begin from late March and run through to late October.

The announcement is likely to be welcomed by airports and budget carrier Wizz Air which wants slots to expand, in particular at Gatwick, but may not satisfy most airlines.

Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr hit out at current EU slot rules this month, saying these had forced the carrier to operate 18,000 unnecessary flights this winter – sometimes referred to as ‘ghost flights’.

However, the UK Department for Transport said in a statement today: “Airlines will not have to operate ‘ghost flights’ to retain their slots where markets are substantively closed.

“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.

“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.

“The list of situations where airlines can claim justification for not using their slots is being widened. 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 restrictions.

“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.

“In such circumstances the regulations allow the airline to keep their 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 added: “Since the onset of the pandemic we’ve 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.”

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