The European Commission has announced its intention to extend a temporary waiver on airport slot rules until March 2021, in a move that’s being welcomed by the airline industry.
Existing rules mean airlines have to operate at least 80 per cent of scheduled flights or they risk losing their airport slots to competitors.
During the height of the pandemic in March, airlines were forced to fly near-empty planes, known as “ghost flights”, just to hold on to their slots.
In response, the European Commission announced a temporary relaxation of the rule. At the time, there was no confirmed end date to the waiver.
In light of the ongoing pandemic, the European Commission has now proposed to extend the waiver to 27 March 2021.
In a statement, Commissioner Adina Vălean said: “The Coronavirus pandemic has had a tremendous impact on air travel and the aviation sector as a whole. Today's report shows that air traffic levels remain low, and more importantly, they are not likely to recover in the near future.
“In this context, the lack of certainty over slots makes it difficult for airlines to plan their schedules, making planning difficult for airports and passengers.
“To address the need for certainty and responding to traffic data, I intend to extend the slot waiver for the 2020/2021 winter season, until 27 March 2021.”
The Commissioner added that she was intending to grant the full-season waiver straight away as she expected “the industry to abide by the agreed conditions voluntarily during the 2020/2021 winter season, pending the adoption of fully enforceable conditions.”
However, while the temporary waiver has allowed airlines to be more flexible when planning their capacity and avoid operating ghost flights, Vălean highlighted some issues with the current process.
She explained: “Slots are not always relinquished in time for other users or airports to plan operations as they would like; competition may also be distorted if airlines seek to benefit by increasing their market presence without using their slots and airport capacity correctly.
“Such behavior can hamper competition and can, therefore, harm EU passengers and freight customers. This must be remedied.”
The European Commission is now looking at a more permanent solution to the issue.
The proposed extension has been welcomed by the industry.
The European Regions Airlines Association (ERA) has praised the move, saying it is “essential to aiding airlines’ recovery”.
Montserrat Barriga, ERA Director General, says: “We are very happy to see the European Commission has listened to our industry’s concerns and will be ensuring the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ rule is not applied during the 2020/2021 European winter season.
“Air traffic is resuming slowly, but latest forecasts show it is not expected to have returned to pre-crisis levels until at least 2024 and there is still a lot of uncertainty in regards to how the pandemic will develop.
“These facts cannot be overlooked and brought the urgent need for the slot waiver to be extended. This agreement will therefore play a key role in supporting European aviation in its recovery.”