After the lifting of COVID-19 related health restrictions, figures in the transport sector are slowly returning to pre-pandemic levels. According to EUROCONTROL 2022‑2024 forecasts, 9.5 million flights are expected in the aviation sector this year, corresponding to 85 % of 2019 levels, despite the impact of the invasion of Ukraine and global economic challenges. Measures concerning take-off and landing slots should reflect this evolution.
The allocation of airport slots is regulated under the Slot Regulation (EEC Regulation 95/93). Airlines granted a slot at an airport may use the entire range of infrastructure necessary for the operation of a flight at a given time (runway, taxiway, stands and for passenger flights, terminal infrastructure). Changing figures in the volume of air traffic meant an update of the legislation was needed.
The Commission’s December 2011 airport package included a legislative proposal to review the Slot Regulation. The proposal aimed at ensuring optimal allocation and use of airport slots in congested airports and fair competition between operators. The Council adopted its general approach in October 2012 and the Parliament adopted its first reading position in December 2012. In its position, the Parliament aimed to introduce a number of additional measures designed to strengthen the independence of slot coordinators across Europe, and make slot allocation more transparent. The Parliament also sought to strengthen the coordinator’s functions and the independence of the coordinator’s supervisory board. The Parliament rejected proposals to raise the ‘slot series usage rate’ to 85 % and to increase the minimum number of weekly slots for priority allocation. The proposal is currently awaiting Council’s first reading position and remains blocked in the Council.
The Parliament’s resolution of 16 February 2017 had urged the Council and Member States to make swift progress on deadlocked files, including this one. Furthermore, in its aviation strategy for Europe from June 2019, the European Commission urged the Council and the Parliament to adopt the revised regulation swiftly, to enable the optimal use of the busiest airports and to provide clear benefits to the EU economy.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath
In 2020, after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related lockdown measures, air traffic fell steeply. However, airlines are required to use 80 % of their slots to secure their slot portfolios for the following season – should they not reach this threshold, the slots go to the slot pool for reallocation. To temporarily waive the rules on take-off and landing slot utilisation, the European Council suspended airport slot use requirements (the ‘use it-or-lose-it’ rule) from March to 24 October 2020. This measure was extended again until 27 March 2021, to avoid the environmental harm caused by running empty flights (‘ghost flights‘) for the sole purpose of retaining slots for the following season.
Due to some recovery in the demand for air travel, the European Commission proposed in December 2020 to return to the ‘use it-or-lose-it’ rule, to maximise benefits for the greatest number of slot users, consumers and connectivity. After 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. In addition, the Commission was given delegated powers for one year to decide on the extension of the temporary measures and to amend the slot use rate within a 30‑70 % range. The Commission has extended the measures to the winter season, running from 31 October 2021 until 27 March 2022, with the same 50 % threshold. 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, with a threshold of 64 %. The ‘justified non-use of slots’ exception was also extended.
On 12 July 2022, the European Commission proposed to return to a higher slot use rate (80 % of the 2019 figures) as of 30 October 2022 – reflecting the increasing demand, but simultaneously allowing the possibility to continue to make use of the ‘justified non-use of slots’ (JNUS) tool. In the Parliament, Members are expected to vote on the proposal during the October I session.