UK carriers including British Airways, easyJet and Virgin Atlantic will hang on to lucrative take-off and landing slots without having to use them this summer after ministers extended waivers to controversial airport rules.
Airlines have parked their fleets during the crippling disruption caused by the pandemic, prompting the suspension of rules forcing airlines to “use or lose” their slots 80 per cent of the time.
The suspension since the pandemic started has been criticised by rival airlines Ryanair and Wizz Air, which argue the waivers are anti-competitive and hope to profit from the disruption in the industry.
The decision is also a blow to London’s Gatwick airport, which has seen many of its biggest airlines switch their remaining operations to Heathrow, and was pushing for airlines to be forced to use their slots.
The Department for Transport will extend the waiver, which was due to be lifted in the spring, through the summer season, Airport Coordination Limited said on Friday.
The decision illustrates that ministers are expecting another difficult summer for the European airline industry as travel curbs widen.
It will be a relief for airlines including BA, easyJet and Virgin, which have been able to trim back their schedules while hanging on to spots at capacity-constrained airports.
Take-off and landing rights are among airlines’ most valuable assets and can be traded for tens of millions of pounds.
“The risk for the UK is that a blanket waiver . . . may discourage airlines who are prepared to restart operations from investing in the UK market,” said Chris Butler, an analyst at ACL, which coordinates slot distribution.
Airlines may decide there are better opportunities for growth through gaining slot rights elsewhere in Europe, he added.
Wizz had written to ministers over the rules in a bid to hoover up slots at Gatwick.
The carrier’s chief executive Jozsef Varadi has warned rules are stopping him from making a significant investment at Gatwick, where he has floated plans of eventually operating up to 20 aircraft from just one currently.
Mr Varadi told the Financial Times this week that allowing airlines to hold on to slots through the summer without using them would be “mind boggling”.
“London Gatwick at the moment is a ghost house . . . I think it is mind boggling that an airline who would be prepared to fly, and contribute to the welfare of the country and economy, is blocked because airlines are holding slots back,” he said.
The UK has been able to set its own rules, which differ from EU proposals to phase the rules back in this summer with a reduced threshold requiring carriers to use 40 per cent of flights, following its departure from the bloc.