boeing 737 airplane

Airlines will be forced to operate more flights to keep airport slots

Image credit: DT

The government has tightened rules around UK airport slots so airlines will be forced to operate flights at least 70 per cent of the time in order to keep them.

Following the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the rules around parking planes in airports were loosened so airlines were only obliged to use them 50 per cent of the time.

This decision was made in order to provide some relief to the sector, which was one of the worst hit by the pandemic as people drastically reduced the amount they travelled between countries.

But airlines will now be forced to use their airport slots 70 per cent of the time from 27 March in order to keep them as demand for flights slowly returns to pre-pandemic levels.

But a complete recovery could still be years away. A poll in April found that 40 per cent of European business travellers said they would travel by plane less in the future, and analysts have predicted that a full recovery may not occur until 2024 at the earliest.

The government said that while airlines will need be expected to meet the new terms to keep their slots, they will also benefit from added flexibility over when they are justified not to use them, for example, where a market is closed.

If this alleviation wasn’t provided, the usage threshold would default back to 80:20 with no additional flexibility on justified non-use, increasing the risk of ghost flights, the Department for Transport (DfT) said.

Ghost flights are when airlines take trips with no one onboard in order to meet their obligations to airports. Lufthansa Group recently confirmed that 18,000 flights had been flown empty this winter because of these rules, leading to calls for the EU to make changes to lower carbon emissions.

Since the UK left the EU, it now has autonomy to set its own airport slot requirements. The DfT said that as part of this, the list of situations where airlines can claim justification for not using their slots is being widened further.

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.”

The new rules follow the removal of the temporary, extra testing measures introduced for Omicron in November 2021.

A Heathrow Airport spokeswoman described the Government’s decision as “fair to airports and airlines”.

She continued: “It strikes the right balance between driving recovery and promoting competition, which is positive for consumers, while recognising that the industry still faces uncertainty and needs support.”

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