Lara Maughan, IATA’s Worldwide Head of Airport Slots, says the industry’s slot relief package must be adopted as soon as possible.

The northern winter 2021 season starts on 31 October 2021. At this point the prospects for the season are highly uncertain, which is creating a nightmare for airlines trying to plan their operations.

For this reason, IATA is urging governments to swiftly approve a slot relief package for the season. Early decision-making will be a huge benefit for airlines, airports, and passengers alike. Decisions are being made now about airport resources, airline fleet, crew, schedule size, and route structures that will influence airlines’ networks into 2022.  Fundamental to this planning is understanding the slot rules at each of the airports in the airlines’ network. 

For the upcoming winter season, IATA and the Worldwide Airport Slot Board (WASB)  is on the front foot providing a timely recommended approach to governments. The WASB recommendation for winter 2021 enables an economic and environmentally sustainable recovery of flights, as long as it is implemented in full.  To support planning, it needs to be adopted quickly.

Seeking slot relief for the fourth season in a row is not done lightly, but no one could have predicted the extent of the crisis. The lack of predictability and stability around each country’s plans to start their reopening has left the airline schedule and network planning teams in a continued no-man’s-land. In fact, many countries in mid-May 2021 are more restricted than at any other time in the crisis.

Airlines need flexibility to navigate another season of volatility. Changes in restrictions, re-openings and closures are some of the ‘known unknowns’. Airlines have learnt that optimism must be levelled with the ability to react quickly and shift flying to where the demand exists. There are also other issues that the industry must face. Airport capacity is a concern due to reduced passenger processing capabilities and pressure on the terminals related to health management measures, requiring temporary changes to schedules.

Normal slot rules often  achieve slot use in excess of 98%, but are not appropriate in the current circumstances where international travel is down 80% or more. Being able to plan without the normal slot use constraints means airlines are in the best position to react and serve demand, build schedules for passengers, and fly where their governments will allow them to travel. 

The WASB proposal is not for a full waiver, it’s a package that requires airlines to think very carefully about their network for the upcoming season. They are given the tools to sustainably plan an operation that reflects the markets they operate in, open or closed, while also granting flexibility to react. The solution is pro-competition, allowing entry and schedule development, such as we are seeing at Heathrow, the world’s most congested airport.

For example, an airline with a large domestic network that is operating at levels close to 2019 is not going to return all their slots. They need the slot times and the access to their airports to underpin their schedule.

By contrast, airlines operating long-haul international networks will take considerably longer to restore the frequency of services they operated between cities. These services represent a connected world that is a spider’s web of feeder services from regional airports to hubs, and that enable passengers to move quickly anywhere in the world.

Without relief, airlines are forced to preserve the most critically congested airports in their networks and will dump operations on their marginal routes. This isn’t good for passengers or for regional airports. The WASB proposal tries to protect these carefully crafted networks, which form the backbone of global connectivity. This will enable aviation to play its crucial role in turbo-charging the world’s recovery from the pandemic.

Credit | IATA | Sam Kerr