MIAMI – If the aim is to stifle the air transport industry, then the stand taken by the EU Commission on slots usage is the right way to go.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 290 airlines and supports aviation with global standards for “airline safety, security, efficiency and sustainability,” has firmly reacted to this unmotivated move.

Frankfurt Airport B Finger. Photo: FRAPORT Media

EU’s 50% Slot Usage Rule

The EU Commission has decided to renew and maintain the current 50% rule on slot usage against a more flexible 30% request made by airlines, which would allow air carriers to adjust schedules according to actual demand and avoid useless flights and carbon emissions.

The Commission has also switched off the “force majeure” rule for intra-European flights, a rule that suspends obligations on slot use in case of exceptional COVID-linked reasons.

Under the EU Commission’s 50% rule, airlines operating at airports with a slot-regulated system from November to April are compelled to use half of the pairs allotted or lose them. This means no hand backs of unused slots at the start of the following season to allow a realistic match between schedule and actual demand or enable other airlines to operate.

The rule will restrict the flexibility with which airlines may adjust to rapid and unpredictable changes in demand and perform unnecessary money-wasting flights while concurring to avoidable carbon emissions. The rule would also have a negative effect on the re-establishment of a normal global air transport network and further weaken the financial situation of the industry in general.

Chart: IATA

Traffic and Demand Uncertainties Still Loom

The EU Commission justified its action by arguing that the present intra-European traffic recovery “justifies a 50% use threshold with no alleviation” without taking into account significantly evident uncertainties in the winter traffic and demand outlook, markedly pointed out by EU member states, IATA, and its member airlines. These are:

  • The recovery shown by intra-European traffic is, at best, a partial indicator for slot-regulated airports where slots will be needed for global traffic connections, still negatively affected by the crisis and not yet showing signs of recovery. IATA estimations place the recovery at only 34% of 2019 levels by the end of the current year. (See chart above)
Chart: IATA
  • As a historical fact, Winter season demand, even in exceptional years, is lagging below the Summer one with this year season being particularly low, well under the 2019 booking demand. EU long-haul bookings are presently averaging only 20% of 2019 levels. (See chart above)
  • The easing of travel restrictions is not responding and, notwithstanding vaccination campaigns being in full action, governments are still applying a very cautious approach on border opening. The response to Covid’s variant is a usually sudden border closure, or the imposition of quarantine measures, which has the effect of immediately killing travel demand. This makes EU air travel demand unpredictable and weak. (See chart below)
Chart: IATA

Regulating authorities in other parts of the world have had a better reaction than the dogmatic one adopted by the EU.

UK, China, Latin America, and Asia-Pacific have adopted more flexible measures that, contrary to the EU Commission, have not taken for granted that traffic will soon return and at a rate that can not be reasonably forecasted.

Willie Walsh, Director General, IATA. Photo: IATA Media Center

Comments from IATA Chairman, EU Transport Commisioner

IATA Chairman Willie Walsh used strong words to criticize the EU decision by stating, “Once again the Commission has shown they are out of touch with reality. The airline industry is still facing the worst crisis in its history.”

“The Commission had an open goal to use the slots regulation to promote a sustainable recovery for airlines, but they missed it. Instead, they have shown contempt for the industry, and for the many member states that repeatedly urged a more flexible solution, by stubbornly pursuing a policy that is contrary to all the evidence presented to them.”

He also added a very direct comment on the environmental aspect of the EU measure, “There is a rich irony that only a week after the Commission released its ‘Fit for 55’ carbon emissions plan, it publishes a slots regulation that may force airlines to fly regardless of whether sufficient demand for that route exists.”

On his part, EU Transport Commissioner Adina-Ioana Vălean said, “We need to act with ambition for our planet, but without punishing our citizens or businesses.’ Clearly, this decision on slots fails to meet these conditions.” 

Article sourced on IATA Press release

Featured image: DFS-Tower, Wartungshalle. Frankfurt Airport Tower. Photo: Fraport Group