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Airlines seek review of slot rules over coronavirus spread

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Airlines is contacting aviation regulators worldwide to request that the rules governing use of airport slots be reviewed or suspended immediately for the 2020 season, due to the impact of the coronavirus (covid-19).

The airlines, under the aegis of International Air Transport Association (IATA), made the call following the cancellation of over 2500 flights and about $30 billion loss in passenger revenue.

Around 43 per cent of all passengers depart from over 200 slot coordinated airports worldwide. At present, the rules for slot allocation mean that airlines must operate at least 80 per cent of their allocated slots under normal circumstances.

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Failure to comply with this means the airline loses its right to the slot the next equivalent season. In exceptional circumstances, regulators can relax this requirement. The covid-19 crisis has had a severe impact on air traffic. 

Airlines are experiencing serious declines in demand. This includes a carrier experiencing a 26 per cent reduction across their entire operation in comparison to last year. A hub carrier reporting bookings to Italy down 108 per cent as bookings collapse to zero and refunds grow. Many carriers reporting 50 per cent no-shows across several markets.

Future bookings are softening and carriers are reacting with measures such as crew being given unpaid leave, freezing of pay increases, and plans for aircraft to be grounded.

Given these extraordinary circumstances as a result of the public health emergency, the collective view of the airline industry is that the application of the 80 per cent rule during the upcoming season is inappropriate. Flexibility is needed for airlines to adjust their schedules according to extraordinary demand developments.  

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Regulators have already been waiving the slot rules on a rolling basis during the covid-19 crisis primarily for operations to China and Hong Kong SAR. However, given the recent further outbreaks this is no longer contained to the Asia markets. 

Without certainty that these waivers will continue for the summer season (or winter season in the Southern hemisphere), airlines are unable to plan ahead sufficiently to ensure efficient rostering of crew or deployment of aircraft.

Suspending the requirement for the entire season (to October 2020) will mean that airlines can respond to market conditions with appropriate capacity levels, avoiding any need to run empty services in order to maintain slots. Aircraft can be reallocated to other routes or parked, crew can have certainty on their schedules.

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IATA’s Director General and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Alexandre de Juniac, said IATA research had shown that traffic has collapsed on key Asian routes and that this is rippling throughout the air transport network globally, even between countries without major outbreaks of covid-19.

“There are precedents for previous suspension of the slot use rules and we believe the circumstances again calls for a suspension to be granted. We are calling for regulators worldwide to help the industry plan for today’s emergency, and the future recovery of the network, by suspending the slot use rules on a temporary basis.

“The world is facing a huge challenge to prevent the spread of covid-19 while enabling the global economy to continue functioning. Airlines are on the front line of that challenge and it’s essential that the regulatory community work with us to ensure airlines are able to operate in the most sustainable manner, both economically and environmentally, to alleviate the worst impacts of the crisis,” de Juniac said.

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