Heathrow Airport Could Soon See A Huge Increase In Ghost Flights

The entity in charge of managing slots at London Heathrow and other UK airports, known as Airport Coordination, is warning its client airlines that there is no slot waiver in place for the upcoming winter season – at least when it comes to Europe. This notification comes two months before the end of the summer season. Without any concrete action, we may just see the resurgence of ghost flights as airlines look to secure their slots by meeting minimum utilization standards.

Heathrow Airport, COVID Tests, Quarantine
With scarce and hard-to-obtain slots at London Heathrow being some of the most valuable in the world, we may see airlines running ghost flights in order to meet the rules for minimum utilization. Photo: Heathrow Airport

A quick background-blurb for anyone not familiar with the world of airport slots. At the busiest of airports, times are allocated to airlines for the arrival and departure of their aircraft. These are known as slots.

As supply dwindles and demand stays strong, these slots become highly sought after. To prevent abuse of the system and ensure slots are being utilized by airlines, many aviation authorities have implemented an 80/20 rule, also known as the ‘use it or lose it’ rule.

“Under this rule, airlines must use at least 80% of their take-off and landing slots at European airports or face losing them to a competitor the following year.” -European Parliament

Waivers to this rule were issued for the summer season, which ends on October 25th, due to the tremendous impact coronavirus has had on air travel.

Oman Air 787
Airlines like Oman Air (as an example) would have to arrange for a private aircraft to fly out of Heathrow just to maintain slots. Photo: tjdarmstadt via Wikimedia Commons

A warning from Airport Coordination

Airport Coordination manages airport slots across the UK as well as for a handful of airports in Europe, the Middle East, and New Zealand. The company issued a press release on August 26th, advising on the current situation.

Firstly, Airport Coordination notes that waivers are currently in place for its airports in New Zealand and Dubai, covering the entire northern Winter 2020 season. “Alleviation will be granted subject to certain conditions”, it adds. More importantly, especially for busy London Heathrow, the company says:

“A waiver is not currently in place for any of ACL EU & UK airports so cancellations made will be treated as per the EU Slot Regulation as would be the case in any other season. Carriers are encouraged to consider the [the information contained in this press release] when determining when to make cancellations at these airports.”

Heathrow runway queue
While Airport Coordination has secured waivers for its New Zealand and Dubai Airports, its EU and UK airports are not exempt from the 80/20 rule…at least not yet. Photo: Getty Images

What happens if no waiver is issued?

If no waiver to the 80/20 rule is issued for European airports, airlines risk losing their slots next season if they are unable to use them at least 80% of the time. The threat of this comes at a time when the aviation industry is still in the extremely early stages of recovery, with some countries and airlines recovering more slowly than others. So what would happen without an 80/20 rule waiver?

At London Heathrow, typically Europe’s busiest airport, we could see a lot more ghost flights taking place as airlines fight to retain their previous allocations. Some airlines would have to run more of these ghost flights than others, generating a needless amount of work and carbon emissions, at a time when airline resources may be scarce.

In fact, Head for Points notes that carriers like Oman Air would have to pay a private jet operator to run an empty aircraft out of Heathrow twice per day on four of the five days that it has slots at the airport.

UK Quarantine Heathrow
Full details of the UK quarantine plan have been revealed today. Photo: Getty Images

Making a statement in June, IATA has already called on airports to extend the 80/20 waiver through the Winter 2020 season.

“A full Northern Winter season waiver on the 80-20 use-it-or-lose it slot rule would provide critical relief to airlines in planning schedules amid unpredictable demand patterns. Airlines are planning their schedules. They need to keep sharply focused on meeting demand and not meeting slot rules that were never meant to accommodate the sharp fluctuations of a crisis. The earlier we know the slot rules the better, but we are still waiting for governments in key markets to confirm a waiver,” – Alexandre de Juniac, CEO, IATA

In this whole situation, Airport Coordination Limited is the ‘middle-man’ enforcing the rules. In this case, European regulations are set by the European Commission, which would have the power to extend the waiver.

Simple Flying has reached out to European Commission for comment on the matter, asking about its position on a winter season waiver.

Do you think The European Commission will extend its 80/20 waiver into the next season? Do you think it should? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.