A coalition formed of Gatwick, Belfast International and Edinburgh Airports and Wizz Air has urged the UK’s Transport Secretary to reinstate the ‘use it or lose it’ airport slot rules “to stop UK consumers paying higher airfares than passengers in other countries”.

The rules demand that airlines use their allocated slot for at least 80 per cent of the time, and incentivise carriers to fly, trade or return unused airport slots so that other airlines can use them instead.

The rules were suspended during the pandemic due to border restrictions and a fall in passenger demand. The coalition urges for their reinstatement for the summer 2022 season when passenger numbers are expected to increase thanks to successful vaccination campaigns and the easing of border restrictions.

The letter to Grant Shapps states:

“Continuing with the waiver for the summer 2022 season – when market conditions are expected to be at, or close to pre-pandemic levels – would therefore be a wholly disproportionate response to those conditions.”

It argues that the continued use of the waiver may mean that customers will have a “reduced choice of destination and airlines” and stated that the issue has already been raised with the UK’s competition watchdog CMA.

The letter argues that it would lead airlines to “under deliver on capacity, whilst deliberately hoarding slots to protect their market position” and act “as an intentional barrier preventing other carriers, including new market entrants, from flying these slots instead – regardless of the fact that there is a clear demand from the passenger to see more capacity being operated”.

It notes that authorities in other markets have “reinstated some discipline in slot regulations”, stating that China’s domestic aviation is now above pre-pandemic capacity levels, while the US domestic market has been close to 90 per cent of normal capacity since June.

In Europe, countries are also growing back strongly with France at 78 per cent, Italy at 79 per cent, and Spain at 83 per cent of 2019 levels. The UK, on the other hand, lags behind at 63 per cent according to the coalition.

The letter also outlines that the restoration of the slot regime in Europe has not led to ghost flights – flights carrying no or few passengers – but has instead boosted connectivity for consumers. It adds that it understands that the European Union is considering a return to the 80/20 rules “without any dispensation for summer 2022”.

Jonathan Pollard, Chief Commercial Officer, Gatwick Airport, said: 

“In our view its imperative that the UK Government gets fully behind the recovery of the UK aviation sector by restoring the slot rules so that competition once again flourishes for both the benefit of industry and the consumer. A continued slot waiver would be a disproportionate response to market conditions. A decision on the summer 2022 slots before Christmas would allow proper planning of resources to enable a smooth ramp up of operations as the industry continues its recovery.” 

Marion Geoffroy, Managing Director of Wizz Air UK, said: 

We have been calling for the reinstatement of the 80:20 slot rules for some time and would strongly urge the UK Government to put these plans in place ready for the 2022 Summer season. It is simply wrong that some UK airlines should be allowed to hold onto these slots for another season if they have no intention of operating them.

“We have already started to see a return towards pre-pandemic traffic levels, and Summer 2022 has the potential to be a great opportunity for UK aviation to get back on its feet, if the Government supports the industry by restoring the slot rules and allowing competition to flourish for the benefit of the industry, and most importantly the consumer”. 

Graham Keddie, managing director, Belfast International Airport, added: 

“The successful vaccination campaigns and the subsequent easing of border restrictions has allowed the market to recover; meaning that passengers can book with confidence.  We are therefore calling upon government to restore the slot rules. This will allow the industry to rebuild while ensuring passengers have choice by creating opportunities for potential new entrants to market.”

The letter also notes that the rules should be suspended “when genuine restrictions, such as closed borders or substantive quarantine periods are in place”.