Airlines operating to some of the largest US airports won a reprieve from regulators. Certain operations at JFK, La Guardia, Washington-DCA, O’Hare, San Francisco, and Los Angeles will be exempt from slot usage requirements, extending a waiver put in place as the COVID pandemic began in early 2020.
But this time around the waiver comes with a change in terms, one that could prove significant for US airlines.
Through the end of October 2021 the slot usage exemption applies to all flights at these slot-restricted or slot-controlled airports. The newly proposed extension of that waiver changes the terms:
This relief would be limited to slots and approved operating times used by any carrier for international operations only, through March 26, 2022.
By adding the “for international operations only” qualifier the US Department of Transportation is effectively requiring full utilization of all domestic slots. Airlines that fail to utilize their domestic slots this winter risk losing them to reallocation by authorities.
A creative compromise
While the larger, legacy airlines in the US lobby for the slot waivers to continue, smaller airlines pushed hard the other direction. The newer airlines see an opportunity to increase their access in markets that have otherwise been incredibly hard to enter.
The FAA proposal appears to match JetBlue‘s ideal outcome. The carrier sought “a case-by-case approach to evaluating petitions for relief,” mostly focused on international markets. Southwest Airlines specifically opposes any further relief at U.S. domestic airports, DCA and LGA.
By specifying “international operations” in the latest proposal the government can deliver relief to foreign airlines, ensuring reciprocity of similar policy for long-haul routes operated by US carriers. But with US traffic briefly topping 80% of 2019 levels over the summer, the government is keen to see those limited resources pressed back in to domestic service. Even if the recovery has faltered slightly headed into the slower Fall season.
Also at issue is the definition of an international slot for US airlines. Presumably the agency will consider 2019-2020 winter schedules, routes, and frequencies to make that determination. But the initial proposal does not specify. A request for clarification from the FAA was not answered.
Addressing the mix of domestic and international operations at many of these airports by US airlines, the FAA intends to use historical slot usage to make a determination of which are eligible for relief:
[T]he FAA intends to provide this conditional relief to domestic carriers on a scale that is comparable to each carrier’s pre-COVID level of international service. The FAA would generally evaluate any request for relief from U.S. carriers for the Winter 2021/2022 scheduling season based on historical levels of operations to foreign points as demonstrated in published schedules… The FAA would not accept evidence of intent to use a particular slot or approved operating time for an international flight during the Winter 2021/2022 season, if the information is dated after this notice is issued.
At LaGuardia or Reagan-National that means a few Canada-bound slots could be suspended. Otherwise expect nearly full utilization at those airports come 31 October. Operations at the other covered airports include more international routes so more suspensions should be expected through the winter.
For some US carriers this will almost certainly mean “slot-squatting” schedules will operate. These are flights the airlines would prefer to scrub from the schedule, but they remain in service because the alternative is competition from other airlines.
That’s rarely good either for the airlines, passengers, or the environment. But at least the airport gets its landing fees paid, I suppose.
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