Head of Coordination, Richard Cann, explains the background to slot coordination changes because of Covid-19.
I should have guessed back in March that 2020 was not going to be a normal year. My planned holiday around Asia quickly became a beach holiday in Mexico and souvenirs were replaced with bottles of hand sanitiser and toilet rolls. Before flying home, it was clear the effects of Covid-19 were going to challenge aviation’s slot process and may well change it forever.
Slot coordination is a planning function that looks predominately into the medium term. That all changed with the emergence of Covid-19 as the industry shifted into looking at the next few days and weeks. ACL was required to become more operationally focused, to provide information on what was likely to operate in the short term. New processes were adopted to capture & manage repatriation flights and the increase in cargo flights some of which were operating using passenger flights.
Referral processes were introduced where constraint challenges existed. Airlines complained capacity was not available at a time the industry was grounding flights and had few passengers. It took time for airlines to get into a pattern of handing back slots they did not intend to use. In the meantime, ACL had to manage the waitlist as we would in any normal season, with many teams experiencing greater demands on their time.
As the industry becomes more accustomed to the situation a more consistent pattern of slot returns is being seen, albeit still relatively late for those trying to plan capacity and resources. Every new issue of the restrictions led to more changes. Unfortunately, there is unlikely to be any pattern of consistency in the ever-changing environment we are in.
Alleviation must be one of the most used words in aviation this year. With different Regulations governing the slot process in different jurisdictions it was always going to be a challenge to remain consistent across all ACL airports. The EU slot Regulation that governs most ACL airports does not explicitly cover pandemics and the subsequent impact on demand. With Europe having the greatest concentration of coordinated airports, it was imperative that the European Commission acted swiftly to give the certainty the airline community were seeking.
Whilst the EU deliberated, each sector of the industry lobbied ACL to seek alleviation and shared their views on what form that should take. ACL welcomed such interaction, as it allowed us to understand the impact of Covid-19 on different businesses. However, views on what form alleviation should take were wide ranging and often mutually exclusive, which made finding a successful outcome for all parties challenging.
Managing alleviation on a season by season basis means the topic is always on the agenda. As soon as alleviation is granted for one season, the focus moves swiftly onto the next. The Worldwide Airport Slot Board (WASB) aimed to find a consensus between airlines, airports and coordinators. The result of these discussions is a negotiated outcome that seeks to address the concerns of all stakeholders.
Conditions added to alleviation that have been adopted by the EU on a voluntary basis are difficult to administer in a practical way by coordinators, meaning their value is diminished. At a time of crisis, the coordinator needs clear direction with the associated power to deliver successful outcomes. Negotiated outcomes take time and by their very nature can dilute the intentions of what is presented.
Shortly after its establishment, the WASB has been tested with unprecedented circumstances. The challenges of satisfying all requirements will no doubt continue but the focus remains on the speed and quality of the outcomes. If the industry cannot provide effective guidance, there is a risk the Regulator will take a more active role.
As soon as the impact of Covid-19 was clear, ACL made sure we used the latitude provided in the regulation and WASG to ensure a balanced outcome wherever possible. Throughout, we issued guidelines to airlines to ensure they were aware how slots would be treated during the pandemic. This allowed for newly allocation slots to be allocated on a non-historic basis so new slots did not become blocked season after season as a direct result of alleviation. Such changes required system development to support the coordination team. All of which ACL and its partners achieved efficiently, ensuring we could deal with whatever was presented.
The impact of Covid-19 will remain for several seasons. ACL continues to work on ensuring its processes are best placed to deal with the changing environment. Local Rules have been introduced where required to manage temporary reductions in airport capacity. This work has now been incorporated into industry best practice and extended to cover commercial capacity reductions at airports. The teams are now focused on the short, medium and long term to deal with the immediate issues and continue with the scheduling calendar as planned.
In the short term, ACL will continue to lobby for changes to alleviation to close the unintended consequences of blanket alleviation and work on proposals to find an alternative that is more balanced.
ACL believes that there are lessons to be learned from the impact of Covid-19. The standard industry guidelines do not provide for situations that deviates so far from the norm. When a coordinator needs to use the industry guidance in such situations it needs to be clear and not ambiguous.
It is clear, where slots have value (monetary or commercial) there will always be a desire by those that hold them not to give up that position. That is very logical if you are the airline that holds them. For those carriers wishing to access a market, however, this priority is less important, unless they too are protecting a slot holding at their base airport. The basic principles of slot coordination, to facilitate new entrants and promote competition, is difficult to achieve if slots are not returned to the pool. When demand is low, slots would remain in the pool until they are requested by an airline that wishes to operate. But slots are so valuable that no airline will take that risk and if no alleviation is granted, ghost flights become the potential consequence. However, it is important to remember the slot process and regulation does not force flights to operate empty, that is a decision for the airline concerned, in the same way as an airline deciding to operate flights to nowhere.
As we come out of the pandemic, whenever that may be, the industry should review the current contents of the WASG to ensure that it best meets the need of all stakeholders, including those that do not have a seat at the table. The risk of not doing so may result in alternative methods of slot allocation that may be less palatable.