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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.

is the 80/20 slot rule coming back

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.

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.

Comments (87)

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  • Michael says:

    The impact of these empty planes on the environment is terrible. Surely someone must be able to navigate a way where ghost planes aren’t required?!

  • George K says:

    Wouldn’t the prospect of hundreds of ghost flights (and their unfriendly environmental credentials) force an extension, just like it did the first time?

  • planeconcorde says:

    The EU will be issuing slot wavier for Winter 20/21 because the two of the biggest and powerful countries within the EU will be demanding it i.e. Air France for France and Lufthansa for Germany. In the past airlines like Virgin and Norwegian would have welcomed the chance to get more slots. But even they would welcome protection of their existing slots at the moment. Unfortunately Wizz Air has little leverage over the EU compared with Air France and Lufthansa.

  • Tim Hewson says:

    The EU is calling the shots here which means Germany and France get to decide what is best for Lufthansa and Air France. They will dress it up as being about saving the environment, but at the end of the day the EU only likes moderate, sedate competition. Witness how Germany was allowed to be extraordinarily generous to Lufthansa with loans etc.

    • J says:

      The UK had the opportunity to influence the EU, it chose to leave and become irrelevant.

      • Paul74 says:


      • AJA says:

        Possibly. But that assumes that Spain has no influence at all, given that IAG is actually Spanish domiciled for tax purposes and has 3 other airlines which are all EU based. Surely they get a say? If not the Tim Hewson is correct and it is down to what Germany and France want.

      • Anna says:

        The EU had the opportunity to alleviate the disproportionate burden on UK tax payers but chose not to agree to it as it was arrogant and deluded enough to think that we would never leave.

    • Lady London says:

      +1@Tim Hewson. Love your wording ‘sedate competition’.
      Actually sedate competition helps soften the blow of world changes in industries too, possibly bad for European industrial competitiveness. But good for people in terms of existing employment protection in places like France and Germany.

      Whereas the UK seems to subscribe to the American model which makes people by default very disposable.

  • Nick says:

    There’s also a reality on the ground… even if the waiver does come back, will it really matter? It’s only an issue if airlines actually take them up, which I suspect they won’t at the moment. Even easyJet isn’t really in a position to start flying from Heathrow – they’re barely back at Gatwick. So even if a slot is returned it’ll lie unused, and when demand picks up again you can bet BA will be first in the queue to take it up. I just don’t see airlines queuing up to operate unprofitable flights all winter (other than perhaps the key morning slots, which you can bet BA will cleverly schedule to avoid losing).

    • Rob says:

      The slots won’t be used this Winter though. They are forfeited this Winter and reallocated for W21.

  • Fenny says:

    No “ordinary” (non-business, non-FF) people are travelling at the moment due to the restrictions on where you can go and the possibility of Covid-restrictions meaning people need to quarantine on return. Global airlines and the people who manage slots can make all the decisions they like, but it won’t get bums on planes for a while.

    I was planning to go to Australia and round the world for a month next April. That’s been postponed until the world reopens. But even all the alternatives – US for Biden’s inauguration in Jan 21? – aren’t really an option at the moment.

  • gt94sss2 says:

    Will the EU still actually have a say in UK slot allocations after the end of the year? (apart from needing to agree on flights to/from the EU)

    • Rob says:

      Practicalities mean it needs to be unilateral. No value to the UK doing its own thing.

      • AJA says:

        I think you mean supranational not unilateral? Unless you mean it’s no good the UK acting unilaterally?

        • ChrisC says:

          Well the UK could act unilaterally and say the rule is suspended for UK based airports.

          But unless the other side – whether that the the US or EU or South Africans or Middle east do the same then an airline could lose slots at airports in those nations and regions

          So no good the UK saying to BA ‘no need to worry about losing your LHR slots’ if the Americans insist that JFK slots are used

    • Charlieface says:

      i think it comes down to European Common Aviation Area, which I think UK remains in

  • 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.

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