The government is being urged by a coalition of airports to reimpose rules that force airlines to either use or lose their valuable take-off and landing slots.
The regulations were waived during the Covid-19 crisis but the bosses of Gatwick, Belfast international and Edinburgh airports are calling for a return to strict rules in time for next year’s summer peak.
The airports, which have written to transport secretary Grant Shapps, have been joined in the plea by fast-expanding budget carrier Wizz Air as the aviation industry starts to recover from the pandemic.
The letter also focuses on examples of the potential negative impact on consumers, including reduced choice of destination and airlines, and says that competition issues have already been raised with competition watchdog the CMA.
The coalition recognises that slot regulations had to be suspended during the pandemic but is “urgently calling for their reinstatement” for the summer 2022 season when passenger numbers are expected to rise, following successful vaccination campaigns and the removal of many travel restrictions.
Airlines must normally hand back a slot if it is not used 80% of the time, but the rules were dropped throughout the pandemic by both the UK and EU.
The waiver has allowed airlines, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, to maintain their bases at airports without having to run flights to destinations hit by travel restrictions.
The letter to Shapps says: “Together, we firmly believe that this would be the right time for government to get fully behind our sector by restoring the slot rules and allowing competition to once again flourish for the benefit of the industry and the consumer.
“Gatwick, for example, remained oversubscribed – even during the pandemic – with airlines from across the world requesting slots.
“These airlines were prevented from flying from the airport however as the waiver allowed for potentially deliberate ‘slot blocking’ by some incumbent airlines.
“This has dramatically impacted on consumer choice and connectivity, with only 58% of pre-pandemic routes operating at Gatwick in August, compared to 85% at Stansted and 82% at Heathrow.”
The coalition points to authorities in other markets that have reinstated some discipline in slot regulations, ensuring fair usage of infrastructure and encouraging the restoration of connectivity.
China’s domestic aviation is now above pre-pandemic capacity levels and the US domestic market has been close to 90% of normal capacity since June.
The rest of Europe is also growing back strongly, with France, Italy and Spain already at 78%, 79% and 83% of 2019 capacity levels, respectively, while the UK continues to lag behind at 63%, the airports argue.
Wizz Air UK managing director Marion Geoffroy said: “We have been calling for the reinstatement of the 80:20 slot rules for some time and would strongly urge the UK government to put these plans in place ready for the 2022 summer season.
“It is simply wrong that some UK airlines should be allowed to hold onto these slots for another season if they have no intention of operating them.
“We have already started to see a return towards pre-pandemic traffic levels, and summer 2022 has the potential to be a great opportunity for UK aviation to get back on its feet, if the government supports the industry by restoring the slot rules and allowing competition to flourish for the benefit of the industry, and most importantly the consumer”.
Several airlines have shifted operations from Gatwick to Heathrow during the crisis.
Norwegian Air, which dropped its long-haul routes to become a regional airline during the crisis, is still holding its full portfolio of slots at Gatwick despite dropping transatlantic routes last year, the Financial Times reported.
Gatwick says it should be allowed to permanently offer unused slots to other carriers.
The airport received 262,000 requests for slots for the 2022 summer season, but due to capacity constraints could only accept just over 200,000, according to the FT.
Gatwick chief commercial officer Jonathan Pollard said: “In our view its imperative that the UK government gets fully behind the recovery of the UK aviation sector by restoring the slot rules so that competition once again flourishes for both the benefit of industry and the consumer.
“A continued slot waiver would be a disproportionate response to market conditions. A decision on the summer 2022 slots before Christmas would allow proper planning of resources to enable a smooth ramp up of operations as the industry continues its recovery.”
Belfast international airport managing director Graham Keddie said: “The successful vaccination campaigns and the subsequent easing of border restrictions has allowed the market to recover; meaning that passengers can book with confidence.
“We are therefore calling upon government to restore the slot rules. This will allow the industry to rebuild while ensuring passengers have choice by creating opportunities for potential new entrants to market.”
EasyJet has also said ministers should consider reimposing the slot rules, while aviation’s key industry bodies are working on a new global recommendation for next year.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We are due to consult on airport slots shortly, and will set out firm plans for the summer 2022 season early next year.”