Airlines that are struggling to operate the flights they promised can simply hand back their precious airport “slots” this summer – but claim them back next year.
They are the leading carriers at those airports. But making large-scale cancellations would previously have jeopardised their portfolios of permission to operate flights at specific times. Instead, Britain’s biggest airlines have been grounding departures piecemeal, with an unprecedented number of short-notice cancellations – especially on easyJet at Gatwick.
Now the government has stepped in “to minimise flight disruption ahead of the summer peak”.
The Department for Transport (DfT) says the regulations constitutes an “amnesty” on airport slots rules, and would not have been possible while the UK was part of the EU.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said the plan “aims to help airlines provide certainty to passengers and ensure the next few months are as smooth as possible”.
The chief executive of the Civil Aviation Authority, Richard Moriarty, said: “Providing passengers with certainty this summer is vital and this intervention will help to relieve the pressures we see being experienced by the aviation industry and its customers.”
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, called the move “a welcome step that will help build greater resilience into operations this summer”.
Slots that are handed back will theoretically be available for other airlines to use over the summer – but in practice it is most unlikely that a carrier would step in at a few days’ or weeks’ notice.
The airline schedule analyst, Sean Moulton, described the decision as anti-competitive and detrimental to travellers. He said: “Protecting slots will mean less seats for passengers this summer, inflating fares as competition is squeezed out while restricting new entrants next summer.”
A spokesperson for Gatwick said: “In effect, this measure replicates the local rule we announced last week to ensure airlines fly realistic and reliable schedules this summer, and stop short notice and last minute cancellations.
“In particular, it is important that airline’s fly schedules that match the ground handling resources they are responsible for. This includes during the first wave of flights in the morning, where a lack of ground handling resources is currently causing delays that are then compounded throughout the day, with crews often then running out of hours.”
Gatwick has capped operations in July and August, which is expected to mean easyJet, British Airways and Wizz Air remove planned flights from their schedules.