COVID-19: Why current airport slot allocation rules cannot cope

Sophie Riopel Gewelt by Sophie Riopel Gewelt | Mar 23, 2020

The unfolding COVID-19 outbreak has already had a huge impact on the global economy. As a result of collapsing passenger demand, coupled with growing travel restrictions and bans, the aviation industry is currently at the epicenter of this crisis. In face of the rapidly evolving situation and traffic loss of an unprecedented magnitude, ACI World predicts a loss of at least 25 billion USD.

Airport slots received a lot of media attention following reports of carriers having to fly empty aircrafts to protect their slot portfolio at congested airports. The ensuing discussion mainly focused on debating the most appropriate answer to prevent airlines from being forced to operate “ghost flights”. One might however wonder why the current slot allocation rules cannot cope with COVID-19, and how “ghost flights” could happen in the first place. The question is an important one for both economic and environmental reasons.

Worldwide Airport Slot Allocation

Airports around the world are categorized based on their congestion level: Level 1, Level 2 or Level 3. Level 3 airports, or slot-coordinated airports, are the most congested, and just over half of the world’s air routes operate at these airports. Their level of demand significantly exceeds the capacity of their infrastructure. In simplistic terms, more airlines want to fly to these airports than they can actually accommodate. To respond to this situation, a slot allocation process is implemented to prioritize and manage requests in an orderly manner. Airport slots are scheduled times at which airlines land and depart from an airport.

Why do we need slot usage requirements?

The current guidelines require airlines to operate at least 80% of their allocated schedules at coordinated airports to retain their right to use them in the next equivalent season (“80/20 rule”). The other 20% accommodates commercial cancellations within the airline’s control (e.g. a flight that did not sell well on a specific date) and cancellations related to events that can reasonably be expected to occur. For example, these could include planned maintenance, public holidays and lack of crew or stand-by aircraft, which are all considered to be under the airline’s control. Possible “ghosts flights”, or flights with very low load factors, would normally be cancelled at the airline’s discretion as part of the allowed 20%.

As slots are implemented as a result of scarce infrastructure, they imply that other flights were refused to keep the infrastructure available for airlines who were awarded slots. In this context, airports and unsuccessful airlines want to make sure that this capacity does not go to waste. This would be unfair to everyone, especially the flying public.

Imagine that an airline was ready to offer a direct flight between your current city and your hometown but did not receive slots because the airport was at full capacity. However, it turns out that the flights that were “blocking” the requested schedule were not operated, and that space would have been available for the direct flight to your hometown. Slot usage requirements need to ensure that capacity is not wasted, with the loss of opportunity this would entail for other flights and the travelling public.

Similarly, airports keep infrastructure available when an airline is granted slots. As the providers of the infrastructure, airports also have a legitimate interest in making sure capacity is fully used. This enables them to stay competitive while recovering their costs, ultimately benefiting both airlines and travellers.

Hence, in normal circumstances, slot usage requirements are economically and environmentally friendly measures because they ensure the use of capacity is fully maximized before considering building additional infrastructure.

From capacity crisis to COVID-19

The current outbreak hardly qualifies as business as usual, to say the least. Quite simply, the aviation industry never drafted guidelines for this scenario because a drastic worldwide drop in passenger load factors is so exceptional. In February, airports and airlines were still identifying the best solutions to manage the “capacity crisis” amid seemingly unstoppable passenger boom. Initial comparisons between COVID-19 and other events such as 9/11, SARS, the Great Recession or Ebola quickly became irrelevant as global air travel continues to plunge at unimaginable rates.

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As a global industry, aviation stakeholders have the tremendous responsibility to nurture resilience and take on a positive role. For obvious economic and environmental reasons, no industry stakeholder would advocate that “ghost flights” need to be operated. But it would also be untimely and ill-advised to lock ourselves into long-term decisions under unsubstantiated assumptions on the duration of the outbreak. In view of the substantial knock-on effects on economies that such decisions would have, they need to be based on facts and data.

Consequently, ACI World believes the best solution is a worldwide temporary suspension of airport slot usage requirements until 30 June 2020. This will enable carriers, especially network airlines, to adjust their schedules in a sustainable way and for airports to protect connecting traffic at hub airports and help safeguard connectivity worldwide. ACI also favours an ongoing flexible reassessment of the situation based on data-driven evidence.

Because the released capacity can be used for cargo and freighter flights during the crisis, a time-limited approach could limit unintended consequences when the situation starts to return to normal. This will ensure that passenger carriers regain access to their slots rapidly when demand will warrant a return to operations.

In these difficult times more than ever, ACI World calls for strengthened cooperation between airports, airlines and regulatory authorities at national and regional level to respond to the outbreak in a commensurate manner while preserving global airport connectivity.

ACI World on Airport Slot Allocation
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Sophie Riopel Gewelt

Sophie Riopel Gewelt

Manager, Airport Slots and Capacity Policy
Sophie joined ACI World in October 2019. Her role focuses on developing ACI’s policies on airport slots and capacity. She is also supporting strategic and technical work on the Worldwide Airport Slot Guidelines (WASG), jointly with IATA and regulatory authorities. Sophie has over 9 years of airport and airline experience, including as Chief Facilitator at Aéroports de Montreal.
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