The consistent recovery, albeit for numbers still below those of 2019, of air traffic in Europe during the summer period led the European Commission to propose a return to the 80:20 “use or lose it” formula for slots at European airports for winter. As co-legislator, we will analyse this proposal, which divides opinions among stakeholders and political groups.
The supporters of this return to normality solution advocate that the growth in the number of passengers is a reality, which is an essential tool in decongesting many airports, with implications for punctuality and the number of cancelled flights – very evident in the main European airports, and above all in flag companies. Eurocontrol data support this recovery: from September 8 to 14, the number of flights reached 87% of the 2019 values (pre-pandemic), and the average since the beginning of 2022 is 82%.
Airports and low-cost companies, whose traffic has already recovered to values above 2019 and are very interested in winning slots at major airports across Europe, support the solution proposed by the European Commission.
However, despite the objectivity of the numbers and as most airlines argue, the coming winter period is full of uncertainties, especially concerning the Covid-19 pandemic. New situations of confinement or restrictions on air traffic are not predictable. Still, the emergence of new variants of the virus or a general rise in new cases can lead to some disruptions or, in the simplest hypothesis, a drop in the number of passengers, causing the return of ghost flights if the 80:20 rule applies. The coming months will testify whether or not the return to normality is a reality. Therefore, the question arises: does it make sense to go ahead with the 80:20 solution? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to find a solution between the 64% of the summer and the 80% pre-pandemic?
The summer period that is now ending proved chaotic in many airports, where the difficulties of attracting human resources and investment by airlines were evident, which face increased operating costs, especially in light of the rise in fuel prices and salaries. All this creates enormous pressure on these companies, which are still very weak after three years of the pandemic. Any burden solution can lead to chaos, with direct results for the final consumer and accessibility to more peripheral regions, which are also more dependent on air transport.
In this regard, I tend to agree with IATA when concerned about the sector’s response to the imposition of the 80:20 rule. Still, we can see the opposite perspective: increasing the number of slots available at each airport cannot alleviate the most congested slots and allow better management of passenger flows. Airlines and airports must equally commit to this return to normality as much as possible.
On the other hand, as co-legislators, it is also crucial from our side to understand these concerns and prepare a thoughtful solution. In this context, and because it is a tiny functional formula, it is contested by many. The current regulation of slots (ECC 95/93) is old and has been under review since 2011, which is also bizarre.
The new European Commission’s proposal on this matter will be sent to the European Parliament in the third quarter of 2023, and a whole process of negotiations begins, requiring time.
If we want a competitive and sustainable air sector capable of facing the challenges of climate transition, it is essential to legislating well and quickly. Continuing to experience ghost flights – amid fuel shortages and ambitious climate goals – is an absurdity that we must solve.