COVID-19: European Commission extends certain support measures for the air transport sector until 2021

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The COVID-19 pandemic hit the aviation sector hard. In May 2020, the Commission quickly adopted a series of temporary derogations to the European regulatory framework in support of the aviation sector. In the midst of the second wave of the virus, the Commission decided to extend certain measures until 2021.

In May 2020, the Commission adopted a series of measures amending certain conditions of the Regulation No. 1008/2008 on common rules for the operation of air services in the Community and of the Directive 96/67 on access to the ground handling market at Community airports to help aviation stakeholders cope with the financial pressure created by the COVID-19 crisis.

These temporary measures allowed :

  • airlines in financial difficulty to retain their operating license;

  • ground handling service providers with contracts expiring before the end of 2021 to retain them until 2022, in order to facilitate access to bank loans;

  • airports to urgently replace their ground handling service provider in the event of bankruptcy;

  • Member States to maintain, if necessary, flight restrictions.

On 13 November 2020, the Commission presented its report to the European Parliament and the Council giving a comprehensive overview of the situation in the European aviation sector.

On the basis of this report, the European Commissioner for Transport, Adina Vălean, notes that the measures introduced in May have had a positive effect on the European aviation sector to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. The new wave of the pandemic and its impact on air traffic justifies the decision to extend some of these measures.

Therefore, the Commission recommends extending by one year the derogations related to operating licenses and the selection of ground handling service providers, which were due to expire on 31 December 2020. However, the Commission considers, at this stage, that an extension of the current derogation allowing the extension of ground handling contracts until 31 December 2022 is not necessary.

Moreover, the derogation offering more flexibility to Member States in respect of flight bans will not be extended. In this respect, the Commission considers that flight bans are not effective in containing the pandemic.

The Report concludes that the Commission will continue to examine the situation closely and is ready to consider further measures, where justified, to help the sector to overcome the crisis and recover.

These derogatory measures are part of a movement of solidarity by the EU and Member States in favor of aviation stakeholders, in particular air carriers that are forced to voluntarily or compulsorily cancel certain flights.

In March 2020, the Commission introduced a first derogation from the EU rules on the use of airport slots following the near-complete stop of international flights. The measure was adopted to temporarily exempt air carriers from their obligation to use 80% of their slots 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 EU airports, a slot is an authorization granted by a coordinator to use all airport infrastructure necessary for the provision of an air service at a coordinated airport at a specific date and time for the purpose of landing and take-off. The purpose of this Regulation is to ensure that available take-off and landing slots are used efficiently and allocated in a fair, non-discriminatory and transparent manner.

On 14 October 2020, the Commission decided to extend the slot waiver to cover the entire winter season until 27 March 2021. This allows airlines to plan their flight schedules with more certainty without fear of losing their "slots" due to the drastic reduction of flights (see our article of 27 October 2020).

It should be noted that this is not the first time that the European Union has resorted to such a derogation. It has already been used in 2002 following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in 2003 during the SARS epidemic and in 2009 in view of the global economic and financial crisis.

The airline industry is facing a challenge of unprecedented magnitude. As a result of the significant drop in consumer demand, travel restrictions, border closures, travel bans and economic downturn, the airlines have seen their revenues drastically decline. In this context, the Union and the Member States are striving to ensure the survival of the stakeholders in this sector by relaxing the rules in force. As long as the aviation sector suffers the blows of the crisis, it is more than likely that this derogatory legal framework will continue to apply.