Slot Regrets – I Have A Few, Admits Rex’s Deputy Chairman

Airport slots are in demand at busy airports worldwide, and normally, none more so than at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport. As the airport gears up for a far busier year next year and a return to normal flying routines soon after, a campaign for slot reform at Sydney Airport is underway.

Rex’s John Sharp admitted he has a part in Sydney Airport’s slot problems. Photo: Rex

It’s my fault, really, says Rex’s John Sharp

One of the biggest proponents of reform is Regional Express (Rex). The airline calls Sydney Airport home and wants more slots there to grow their airline next year. Leading the charge is Rex’s Deputy Chairman, John Sharp. But the man has considerable baggage, slot-wise.

Mr Sharp used an address at CAPA’s Australia Pacific Aviation Summit in Sydney on Wednesday to continue his campaign to reform Sydney Airport’s antiquated slot system. But during his speech. Mr Sharp also made a rare mea culpa.

A former federal politician, John Sharp was Australia’s Minister for Transport across 1996-1997. It was a relatively short spell in Parliament House’s ministerial suites. However, Mr Sharp achieved several reforms across Australia’s transportation landscape, not least putting into place the current slot system at Sydney Airport.

As Deputy Chairman of Rex, Mr Sharp nows says the current slot system in Sydney is one of the biggest barriers to growth his airline faces. However, on Wednesday, Mr Sharp also admitted he was responsible for putting those barriers in place.

“They were caused by me, many years ago in another life, when I put a cap on movements at Sydney Airport to 80 movements per hour… So here I am, nearly 30 years later, and what I created then has come back to bite me.”

Rex’s Deputy Chairman John Sharp speaking at CAPA. Source: CAPA

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Rex wants slot reform at Sydney Airport

John Sharp left politics in 1998. But old interests die hard, and in 2005, he became deputy chairman of Rex. Since then, Mr Sharp has become the public face of the airline while the Chairman, Singapore-based Lim Kim Hai, and senior management figures enjoy relative anonymity.

Since his time as Transport Minister, Mr Sharp’s views on how slots are managed at Sydney Airport have shifted significantly. With a limited number of slots per hour available, they are hot property, and Rex wants more of them to expand their Sydney operations when flying normalizes again.

There are two ways this could happen. The slot system at Sydney Airport could be reformed to allow more slots per hour, or there could be a partial reset of slot allocations, especially unused slot allocations. The Australian government is currently conducting a review of slot management at Sydney airport, but like most government reviews, it moves at a glacial pace.

John Sharp wants a faster resolution, and on his radar are unused slots, especially unused slots held by rival Virgin Australia.

Rex operates a fleet of Boeing 737-800s and Saab 340s from Sydney Airport. Photo: Rex

Unused Virgin Australia slots on Rex’s radar

Since the onset of COVID 19, Virgin Australia has been through the wringer. Including Virgin Australia Regional Airlines, the Virgin Australia Group had 133 aircraft pre-COVID. Its aircraft numbers are now nearly half that but set to grow to 84 by the end of next year. However, despite downsizing, Virgin Australia has increased the number of slots its holds at Sydney – with many remaining unused.

“Today, Virgin has more slots in Sydney Airport than they had pre-COVID. They had half the number of aircraft and more slots,” said Rex’s Deputy Chairman.

Mr Sharp accuses Virgin Australia of sitting on unused slots simply to dampen competition – at least until the inevitable slot reform occurs. Much of Virgin Australia’s slot growth can be attributed to the demise of subsidiary Tigerair Australia. John Sharp says Virgin held onto 6,400 of Tigerair’s 13,000 seasonal slots.

Rex’s Deputy Chairman would probably cop it sweet if those slots were getting used. But the airline industry in Australia is only just beginning to get back on its feet after a horror year. Network capacity at Virgin Australia (and at competitor airlines) remains well below pre-COVID levels.

Whether John Sharp’s campaign has any success in the short term remains up in the air. But he’s right on a few core points. Releasing stored slots, even a portion of them, will increase activity and competition at Sydney Airport. It won’t just benefit Rex; it stands to benefit the scores of airlines that usually fly in.

However, the Deputy Chairman’s admission he is responsible for the slots problems at Sydney that now so agitates Rex will also have local rival airlines laughing like hyenas every time they check their bank of stored unused slots.