Written by Jaan Soone.
Air traffic fell steeply due to Covid‑19. To provide temporary relief from the rules on take-off and landing slot utilisation, the European Union suspended airport slot use requirements – the ‘use it-or-lose-it’ rule – from March to 24 October 2020. Under the normal slot rules, airlines are required to use 80 % of their slots to secure their full slot portfolios for subsequent scheduling seasons. If they do not reach the set threshold, the slots go to the slot pool for reallocation. On 14 October 2020, the European Commission extended the slot waiver until 27 March 2021. The relief measures aim at protecting airlines and preventing the environmental harm caused by running empty flights purely to retain slots for the following year.
According to the slot rules, airport slots are allocated by independent coordinators, for summer or winter scheduling seasons. To keep their slots and retain them in the next corresponding season, air carriers have to use them at least 80 % of the time over the scheduling period for which they have been allocated (also known as ‘historical slots’, ‘grandfather rights’ or the ’80‑20 rule’). Otherwise, the slots go back into the slot pool for allocation, with the under-used slots then reallocated (known as the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ rule). Temporary suspensions have been used in the past: in 2002, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks; in 2003, following the Iraq war and the SARS epidemic, and in 2009, in response to the economic crisis.
In December 2020, pointing to some recovery in the demand for air travel and the need to begin a return to the normal application of the ‘use it-or-lose-it’ rule to maximise benefits for the greatest number of slot users, consumers and connectivity, the Commission proposed to set the ‘use it-or-lose-it’ threshold to 40 % temporarily (instead of 80 % under the normal rules – suspended until 27 March 2021 at the time).
Following discussions in the Council and Parliament, the agreed threshold was set at 50 %. For the summer season, running from 28 March to 30 October 2021, airlines were also allowed to return 50 % of their slot series to the slot coordinators for reallocation before the start of the season, without impacting their rights for the slots for the following summer season. Airlines were obliged to operate their remaining slot series at a 50 % utilisation rate to retain their historic rights in those series. The amended rules also included the ‘justified non-use of slots’ exception, protecting airlines’ historic rights to slots when state-imposed coronavirus-related measures severely impede passengers’ ability to travel. The Commission was given delegated powers for one year to decide on the extension of the relief measures and to amend the slot use rate within a 30‑70 % range.
As provided for under the relief rules, in July 2021, the Commission extended the relief measure to the winter scheduling season, running from 31 October 2021 until 27 March 2022, with a 50 % threshold for the ‘use it-or-lose-it’ rule. In December 2021, the Commission extended the slot relief rules for the 2022 summer scheduling season, running from 28 March 2022 until 29 October 2022. According to the changes, airlines will have to use 64 % of the slots to retain historic rights in those slots. The ‘justified non-use of slots’ exception was also extended.
Efforts to revise and update the slot use rules have been made since 2011, when the Commission issued a proposal to amend the rules to ensure optimal use of the scarce capacity available at airports. The Parliament adopted its position in December 2012. However, the proposal remains blocked in the Council. In its resolution of 16 February 2017, the European Parliament urged the Council and Member States to make swift progress on deadlocked files, including the slots proposal.