Managing the airport capacity required to meet passenger demand in the COVID-19 recovery period

Philippe Villard by Philippe Villard | Nov 9, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding, airport operators continue face the collapse of the demand for air transport and be subject to strong operational and financial challenges that must be mitigated to ensure a smooth recovery of air traffic and of airport connectivity. Several measures may lead airport operators no other choice but to reduce their capacity below pre-COVID19 levels – and below what they declared as available capacity in the early stages of planning for the upcoming seasons.

Airports may have to reduce their capacity in the recovery period

Three types of measures can lead to reductions of airport capacity as compared to what airport operators would wish to offer:

  1. Government regulations and restrictions: as the pandemic situation unfolds and sanitary responses are rolled out, government decisions (for instance: imposed reduction in airport throughputs, mandatory health screening, on-airport COVID testing, etc.)  after the initial declaration of the capacity parameters can have a downward effect on the capacity provided by airports.
  2. Practical infrastructure limitation: airports may have to re-assess their capacity based on new operating procedures (e.g. ensuring that there is adequate space for passengers to maintain social distancing in queues, waiting and circulation) and the new patterns of demand in the recovery. 
  3. Commercial considerations: airport operators worldwide are incurring a historic revenue shortfall. In several cases, unsustainable debt-to EBITDA ratios are being reached. The provision of airport capacity in such a context must support the recovery of airports in an economically sustainable manner. Situations where some airport assets would be utilized for only a limited period of time during the day (and hardly used the rest of the day) may lead to a situation where airports would need to reduce capacity rather than keeping it available at too great a cost to be economically viable. 

Similarly, airlines are offering drastically reduced services which are dynamically adjusted on a short-term basis based on the evolving patterns of demand. The adjustment of airline schedules is done in the most flexible manner, thereby adding uncertainty as to whether the airport capacity provided will be used. The unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic makes it difficult for both airports and airlines to predict and manage the capacity required to meet passenger demand.

Bringing clarity to manage change in airport capacity: WASB Best Practices Papers

In light of these difficulties, the Worldwide Airport Slot Board (WASB), which is the governing body administrating the Worldwide Airport Slot Guidelines (WASG), identified the need to highlight Best Practices and complement existing provisions in the WASG. The WASB mandated a small group of globally recognized experts from airports, airlines, and slot coordinators to come together and outline clear and concrete processes and policy options for aviation stakeholders and regulators.

The WASB Best Practice Paper: Capacity Reduction

Thorough guidance material for coordinated airports, slot coordinators, and airlines was developed to address the issue of temporary reduction in airport capacity and how airport slots held by airlines would be handled in such circumstances. Different approaches are laid out based on the severity of the capacity reduction (voluntary reduction, enforced capacity reduction or re-coordination). The impact of these approaches on airlines’ historic entitlement to airport slots is also considered.

A template Local Rule for managing periods of temporary reduced capacity as a result of COVID-19 is provided to concretely address these situations at the airport level and based on the specific local circumstances.

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The WASB Best Practice Paper Capacity Reduction
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The WASB Best Practice Paper: Level Change

The collapse in airport traffic, the evolving patterns of demand and the changes in the airline competitive landscape mean that airports which used to suffer congestion in the past may have sufficient capacity in the COVID-19 recovery period and beyond to accommodate all air traffic demand. In such situation a change in airport level (i.e. removing slot-control) may be warranted. Conversely, a reduction in airport capacity due to COVID-19 operational processes may create congestion at peak times in an airport previously without slot control: a change of airport level would also be warranted (this time to implement slot-control).

The WASB also issued a Best Practice paper to complement existing provisions in the Worldwide Airport Slot Guidelines on the matter.

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The WASB Best Practice Paper Level Change
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The importance of industry collaboration

The WASB Best Practices Papers are meant to be a global reference for airports, airlines, and slot coordinators, demonstrating the commitment of the Worldwide Airport Slot Board to provide mutually beneficial responses to the challenges posed by the COVID19 to air transport.

Philippe Villard

Philippe Villard

Senior Director, Policies and Economics, ACI World
Philippe's main responsibilities include developing airport economic policies; airport slot and capacity policies; and airport charges and aeronautical business development. Prior to joining ACI, Philippe held positions with increasing responsibilities in air transport economic policy development, and airport user charges and aeronautical revenues at ICAO and IATA.
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