UK says airlines must fly more, stirring industry anger

Britain will compel airlines to use 70% of takeoff and landing slots this summer to boost competition after the coronavirus crisis, angering carriers still struggling with demand far short of pre-pandemic levels.

(Photo/London Heathrow Airport)

To ease the transition toward use-it-or-lose-it requirements that are closer to 2019 levels, the Department for Transport also published an extended list of get-out clauses, such as virus-related border closures, on Monday.

Countries set minimum-use requirements at airports to make sure airlines don’t hoard unused capacity and keep out potential competitors. The rules were relaxed when Covid-19 caused global travel to collapse, and governments in the U.K., European Union and elsewhere are now seeking a return closer to the norm.

The issue has emerged as a flashpoint as the aviation industry looks to exit the crisis brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Network airlines seeking to hang on to flying rights want the relaxed rule extended. Airports want a swift return to the old rules to generate revenue — as do low-cost carriers such as Ryanair Holdings Plc and Wizz Air Holdings Plc that are looking to expand.

“The U.K. government decision on slots makes a mockery of their claims to be supporting the recovery of the airline industry and to be champions of the environment,” said Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents carriers such as Air France-KLM, Deutsche Lufthansa AG and British Airways owner IAG SA.

Airlines will need to run thousands of low-capacity trips — known as ghost flights — spewing out unnecessary carbon emissions, Walsh said. Regulators reject this claim, saying the exceptions provide ample flexibility for airlines.

The list of situations in which airlines can mothball slots has been extended and carriers will no longer have to show the situation was unforeseeable before canceling flights. That should prevent any ghost flights, the DfT said.

Airport competition

The British switch means that carriers at hubs like London Heathrow (LHR) and Gatwick (LGW) will have a higher slot-usage requirement than the 64% specified by the European Union. The bloc also has exception clauses.

Gatwick Chief Executive Officer Stewart Wingate praised the U.K. move as a “sensible decision to return discipline to the U.K.’s airport slot regulations for the summer season,” helping to restore “a competitive aviation market.”

Britain’s slot-usage requirement was upped to 50% this winter, but only after airlines were permitted to temporarily return any slots and still retain the right to pick them up the following year.

Lufthansa said this month that it was being forced to fly planes with below break-even passenger loads. The EU said airlines could apply for an exemption if unable to operate a particular route.

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