Airlines will be forced to fly more regularly this summer to retain their take-off and landing rights at UK airports, in a sign that ministers expect a rapid recovery in air travel in the coming months.
The Department for Transport said carriers would have to hand back airport slots if they were not used 70 per cent of the time from March 27, up from the current threshold of 50 per cent.
Airlines are allocated specific time slots at busy airports to help ensure that runways are used as efficiently as possible.
These landing rights are some of airlines’ most lucrative assets, and can be traded for tens of millions of pounds.
In normal times the “use it or lose it” threshold is set at 80 per cent, but the rules were waived at the start of the pandemic to stop carriers from flying empty planes just to maintain their landing rights, a phenomenon known as “ghost flights”.
“As demand for flights returns, it’s right we gradually move back to the previous rules while making sure we continue to provide the sector with the support it needs,” said Robert Courts, aviation minister.
The typically arcane and highly technical issue of airport slots was thrust into the spotlight earlier this month after German flag carrier Lufthansa said it would run 18,000 half-empty “ghost flights” this winter to comply with the EU’s slot rules.
Brussels, like the UK, set a usage threshold of 50 per cent on slots this winter, and has said this will rise to 64 per cent in the summer.
But Lufthansa said the sudden impact of the Omicron coronavirus variant and travel restrictions meant it would operate uneconomical flights to maintain its slot portfolio.
The reports attracted criticism from European politicians and climate activist Greta Thunberg.
The DfT insisted its new rules would help reduce ghost flights, while ensuring that slots were used where there is demand.
The changes unveiled on Monday also included a waiver to allow airlines additional flexibility if destinations are hit by new travel restrictions.
In setting the 70 per cent threshold, the UK has tried to find a middle ground between competing aviation interests.
Many low-cost carriers are hoping to expand and would like to scoop up slots, while network airlines, whose long-haul routes have been slower to recover, have pushed to retain their landing rights.
Stewart Wingate, chief executive of London’s Gatwick airport, welcomed the changes.
The issue is particularly acute for the UK’s second busiest airport, because many airlines have consolidated their operations to Heathrow during the crisis while still holding on to their old slots at Gatwick.
“The government’s sensible decision to return discipline to the UK’s airport slot regulations for the summer season is very welcome and means consumers will once again benefit from a competitive aviation market,” he said.
Marion Geoffroy, managing director of Wizz Air UK, said the changes were “a step in the right direction”. “As we see more and more markets return to normal with the easing of Covid domestic and travel restrictions, we know there is significant pent-up demand for travel,” she said.
Willie Walsh, director-general of airline industry body IATA, criticised the decision and said the UK had proposed the highest slot usage threshold in the world.
“It is inconceivable that international demand will average 70% this summer. The government is therefore condemning airlines to operate thousands of flights at low capacity which is environmentally stupid,” he said.
Ryanair and British Airways did not respond to a request for comment.
The changes came as the travel industry reported rising bookings for international trips this summer.
This week, ministers are expected to announce an end to all travel testing for vaccinated passengers in time for February half-term week and Easter holidays.