The COVID-19 outbreak has had a considerable impact on the aviation sector and has led to a sharp drop in air traffic worldwide since the beginning of 2020 as a result of restrictive measures taken by Member States and third countries.
In this period of crisis, air carriers are forced to voluntarily or compulsorily cancel certain flights and thus cannot use the slots which they were allocated.
Airlines are under the obligation to use 80% of the slots which they have been allocated during a given scheduling period in order to guarantee this allocation for the following season. According to Regulation No. 95/93 on common rules for the allocation of slots at Community airports, a slot is the permission given by a coordinator to use the full range of airport infrastructure necessary to operate an air service at a coordinated airport on a specific date and time for the purpose of landing or take-off. This regulation seeks to ensure that the available landing and take-off slots are used efficiently and allocated in an equitable, non-discriminatory and transparent way.
However, during the COVID-19 crisis, airlines were unable to effectively use 80% of the allocated slots, which could have resulted in the loss of the rights they would otherwise have acquired over these slots.
In March 2020, due to the near-total standstill of air transport as a result of border closures, the Commission introduced a first derogation from this rule following the measures taken by all Member States grounding aircraft throughout the European Union in order to temporarily relieve air carriers from this obligation. The European Union had already put such a derogation in place in the past, notably in 2002 following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, in 2003 during the SARS epidemic and in 2009 following the global economic and financial crisis.
On 14 October 2020, the Commission decided to extend the slot waiver to cover the entire winter season until 27 March 2021. Indeed, the outbreak continues to have a strong impact on air transport and the aviation sector: in September 2020 the number of flights was still 54% lower than in September 2019.
The measure not only maintains the unity of the European slot allocation system, but this waiver also provides legal certainty to airlines as any slots released can be reallocated to other airlines as needed, without affecting the future rights of the air carriers that will be considered to have operated the slots in question.
In addition, it avoids unnecessary CO2 emissions in the event that air carriers try to retain their slots and operate flights with very low load factors (also known as "ghost flights") so as to protect their slot rights. This reduces potential adverse environmental consequences as well as unnecessary costs that would be incurred by air carriers.
Between 31 August and 28 September 2020, the Commission has consulted the public and the industry on how to return to a normal slot regime once air traffic has returned to more stable levels.