Aviation: EESC supports suspension of EU rules on airport slot allocation

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The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) backs the European Commission's proposal to support the aviation sector in the current coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

The EESC is throwing its support behind the Commission's proposal to temporarily suspend the EU regulations on airport slot allocation in light of the coronavirus outbreak. The Committee points out that the suspension should apply until the end of the 2020 summer-time schedule and that this urgent measure should be part of a much wider package to enable the EU aviation sector to recover after the coronavirus crisis.

The suspension would provide planning stability for airlines. It is highly unrealistic to assume that air carriers could at the present time plan for a resumption of their full summer schedule as of June, said the EESC president, Luca Jahier. We must bear in mind that the EU needs to take major steps to support and protect Member States' economies, businesses and workers to limit the damage of the coronavirus crisis and support the recovery #WhateverItTakes, he concluded.

Following the exponential spread of the virus and the increasing severity of the measures proposed by governments to contain it, demand for air services is declining very quickly. On 21 March 2020, there were 66% fewer flights than on the same day in 2019. On that particular day, traffic in the major European aviation markets was down 91% in Italy, 76% in Spain, 74% in France, 66% in Germany, 57% in the Netherlands and 59% in the UK. Air carriers have increasingly had to reduce capacity and ground aircraft. In several EU Member States, entire airlines have been grounded.

The EESC takes a firm stand in the position paper adopted on 25 March 2020 and drafted by EESC member Thomas Kropp. The rapid, sudden and unexpected decline in the demand of air services is placing the aviation sector under significant pressure when it comes to maintaining liquidity and this is coupled with the effects of the ongoing uncertainty about the further escalation of the crisis, said Mr Kropp. The proposed slot waiver would give airlines planning stability in the coming months and provide them with clear guidance on how to proceed with regard to the summer schedule starting on 29 March 2020.

The Commission's proposal

Regulation (EEC) No 95/93 determines the procedures and rules for the allocation of slots at EU airports, specifying that air carriers must use at least 80% of their allocated slots within a given scheduling period in order to maintain these slots for the corresponding scheduling period of the following year.

The Commission has proposed to amend this regulation to enable air carriers to apply grandfather rights to slots that they have not used for the period beginning March 2020 until June 2020 for all flights, and retroactively from 23 January 2020 until June 2020 for flights to and from the Republic of China and to and from Hong Kong.

The Committee's position

According to the EESC, the proposed suspension should apply at least until 24 October 2020, namely for the entire duration of the 2020 summer-time schedule. This would provide planning stability for airlines. The coronavirus outbreak is having a historically unprecedented and exponentially growing impact on supply and demand for air services on a global scale.

Many air carriers are still reducing capacity in the absence of advance bookings. On certain routes, demand has completely collapsed and operations are being closed down. It will take a long time to reinstate flights and this will also depend on the return of passenger confidence. It is therefore key, over the next few weeks and months, that the aviation market be able to react swiftly and flexibly to developments without losing the slots required to re-establish functioning networks.

The Committee recommends that the slot waiver be seen as integral part of a much wider package of urgently required measures to enable the EU aviation sector to recover post-coronavirus. The Commission already adopted a Stimulus Package on 13 March 2020. However, given that all airlines are reporting severe cash flow problems, a far more comprehensive approach is required to address all additional financial burdens, which the sector cannot currently shoulder.

With respect to capacity cuts, the EESC stresses that any developments should be closely monitored by the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell to enable optimal communication between stakeholders.

Looking ahead, the EESC is ready to contribute to further discussions on how best to re-establish a viable and competitive European aviation sector. Such an approach should be comprehensive and should include discussions with all stakeholders, in particular the social partners, which are severely affected by the coronavirus crisis.