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The 80/20 airport slot rule may be back, and change UK aviation for ever

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Airport Coordination, which manages slot allocation at ‘full’ UK airports, issued a guidance note to airlines yesterday. It reiterated that there is NO slot waiver in place for the Winter season, which starts at the end of October, and gave no indication that one would be granted.

You can see the guidance note here.

At congested airports, including Heathrow and Gatwick, airlines are granted the right to keep their existing seasonal slots as long as that slot is flown 80% of the time. If utilisation drops below 80% over the course of the Summer or Winter season, the slot is forfeited. It returns to a central pool, overseen by Airport Coordination, and allocated to another airline which has requested slots.

A slot waiver was put in place in March covering the Summer season. This has allowed airlines to run only a fraction of their services without the risk of slot loss.

The situation for the Winter season, which begins on 25th October, is more complex. Some airlines, in particular Wizz Air – see this article – have pushed for the waiver to be ended. There is a belief that the waivers are damaging competition because there are airlines which wish to operate services from airports such as London Heathrow if only slots were available.

The European Commission is believed to have some sympathy for this approach.

For clarity, it is the European Commission – and not Airport Coordination – who will have the final say. These decisions are outside the control of individual countries because – as airlines need slots at both ends of a flight – the allocation process needs to be mirrored at all major airports.

is the 80/20 slot rule coming back

What would happen if the 80/20 rule returned?

You may think that this may be the end of the British Airways domination of Heathrow. My guess is that you would be wrong.

By moving its Gatwick short haul services to London Heathrow, BA has given itself some slack. It would clearly be very difficult for BA to use 80% of its Heathrow slots, but it does at least have the necessary aircraft available.

BA can also call on the broader resources of IAG. We would see Vueling, Iberia and Aer Lingus stepping up their flights out of London Heathrow considerably.

Many of the flights would go out empty, but BA, and the wider IAG group, does at least have the aircraft to fly them.

(BA would lose its London Gatwick slots for the Winter season if it went down this route. With easyJet and Wizz Air likely to grab as many as they can during the reallocation, it could mean the end of British Airways at the airport.)

Foreign carriers have bigger problems

The real panic will come from foreign carriers. With very few foreign airlines currently running flights into Heathrow, how are they to retain their slots?

Carriers like, say, Oman Air would literally have to pay a private jet operator to run an empty aircraft out of Heathrow twice per day, on four days out of five.

The slots could be leased to other airlines, but how many carriers would be interested in running services into Heathrow for just one Winter season?

You can easily see how British Airways could benefit from the 80/20 rule coming back. If key foreign carriers lost their slots to fly into Heathrow during future Winter seasons, it would clearly strengthen BA’s position considerably. How many carriers would want to keep their Summer slots if they had no rights to fly over Winter?

Let’s see what happens. There is still time for the European Commission to announce a waiver, but with only two months to go, time is running out.

Hat-tip to London Air Travel for the ACL link.

Comments (88)

  • Lady London says:

    Love it, @Doug M! you’ve just described MAN as the Luton experience on steroids! making sure I will travel to depart ftom EDI sooner than MAN if I’m in the North!

    Though, to be fair, other than the monster overcrowding, that part of the LTN experience has improved.

    • memesweeper says:

      @lady @Doug — you both need to sample the Belfast International experience to see how bad a UK airport can be.

      Back on topic — even if the slots aren’t forfeit following the end of the Covid waiver, we’re going to see airlines giving them up, at least short/medium term, because they can’t be used for their traditional purpose. I’m sure the likes of Wizz or EasyJet will happily lease the slots off of the Omans and Aviancas. The losers will be the secondary airports like Stansted and Southend.

  • Alex Sm says:

    I can imagine the environmentalists will cry their throats out if planes are flying empty. And honestly, they will be right. And the European Commission will never make a decision which would invoke such a consequence. So, expect some sort of a compromise or additional regulations banning airlines from “mattress runs” or making them pay more for keeping the slots. They won’t be able to do this and will release them to the market

    • A says:

      I reckon a fair way to do it is to incorporate passenger miles as a requirement to retain the slots. Short empty flights count for nothing so the airlines would have to have passengers willing to fly the slots they plan to keep which should push the omans and aviancas to actually strive to keep a service afloat.

      • Goldmember says:

        Didn’t FlyBE do this a few years ago with volunteers and students on board to protect certain domestic flights?

        • Rob says:

          Flybe was paid a bonus by a local authority if it flew a certain number of people, and they paid students etc to make up the numbers.

  • jessiefan says:

    Belfast is that bad? Is it worse than Cardiff?

    • memesweeper says:

      Does the roof leak at Cardiff? Belfast isn’t even all indoors — the ‘tunnels’ to the ‘gates’ painted on tarmac, so you just traipse along with your bag in the driving rain after disembarcation.

  • Max says:

    Can’t they change the slot rule to require flights to require a certain number of passengers onboard? Otherwise it’s encouraging empty flights and environmental damage.

  • Yorkieflyer says:

    Oh dear, an article that brings out the brexiteers, swampies and flat earthers… sigh

  • Noah Bowie says:

    I think BA will also call on Qatar Airways and IAG as well as their allies in oneworld will move in to Gatwick as well as to a certain extent, Heathrow. BA will not want to let go of Gatwick unless Heathrow is truly at risk. As you say, BA will almost definitely hold on to Heathrow and if possible, expand its presence through slots that are lost by other carriers. But BA will not want to give up Gatwick unless they really have no other choice. As I believe that BA know if they are forced out of Gatwick they expose their flank to even more short haul attacks from Wizz air, Ryanair and Easyjet as well as long haul attacks from Norwegian and others. BA does not need Gatwick from a profit standpoint but keeping a large presence in Gatwick gives low cost competitors much less room to take yet more market share. Therefore Gatwick is necessary in order to keep fortress Heathrow strong. Without Gatwick, BA’s position in London looks very vulnerable