You may have heard airlines, airports, and the media refer to IATA winter and summer schedules. Different airlines, of course, have their own schedules, which typically vary on a seasonal basis. However, the summer and winter schedules being addressed here are IATA-defined seasons for slot allocation. These are the two times each year that slot use and allocation are assessed and adjusted.

IATA and slot allocation

There was once a time when airport capacity was not overly constrained, and takeoff and landing permissions were simply negotiated between operators and airports. As airports have become busier, a greater degree of overall coordination and control has been needed. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has provided this since the 1970s, with a regulated slot process.

IATA defines three categories for airport and slot control based on the capacity and demand for airport use. These are Level 1 (non-coordinated airport), Level 2 (slot-facilitated airport), and Level 3 (coordinated airport). According to IATA, in summer 2019, before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, 204 slot-coordinated airports globally accounted for 43% of the world’s departing passengers.

London Heathrow Airport

Photo: Getty Images

A ‘slot’ is simply the permission of the airport operator for an airline to land a plane and then take off again, as each slot is effectively a landing and takeoff pair. Slots are fixed for particular times (with flexibility for disruption, of course). You can read more about their allocation process and value in our article here.

Defining the seasons

Slots are allocated to airlines using a defined IATA process, known as the Worldwide Airport Slot Guidelines (WASG). Key to this is the definition of two seasons, namely the winter and the summer. For each season, airlines submit their slot requests and planned usage. An IATA conference is held twice a year, at which these slots are allocated and finalized. Seasons are defined by IATA as:

  • IATA Summer schedule – begins on the last Sunday of March and ends on the last Saturday of October.
  • IATA Winter schedule – begins on the last Sunday of October and ends on the last Saturday of March.

As such, this Sunday will see the winter season start on October 30th, 2022. This period will run to March 26th, 2023. The date is also being used as a useful time for airports to make transitions, such as Heathrow lifting its passenger cap.

London Heathrow Airport

Photo: Getty Images

These dates are defined in advance, in order for airlines to submit slot requests and airports to submit capacity information. Each season, a slot conference is held to allocate slots to existing and to new airlines.

The initial submission deadline for the 2022 summer season was in September 2021, and the conference was held in November. Meanwhile, the initial deadline for the upcoming winter 2022 season was in April 2022. The corresponding conference was then held from June 21st to 23rd, giving airlines plenty of time to prepare.

Re-allocating slots

The seasons and allocation process does result in some slot reallocation. If airlines are not using slots sufficiently, they will be returned and reallocated to other airlines. There are strict rules for slot usage that airlines must adhere to. Normally, airlines must use the slots for at least 80% of each season.

Aircraft lining up in the sky to land at London Heathrow Airport

Photo: Getty Images

However, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, this led to some situations where airlines were flying empty aircraft just to keep slots, with these movements being known as ‘ghost flights.’ This was resolved with slot waivers in place from the summer 2020 season, whereby airlines didn’t have to fully utilize slots to keep hold of them. Wizz Air was a critic of this, as it stifled the carrier’s growth.

When slots are unused or returned to the pool, they are reallocated to airlines according to the guidelines. IATA says that this aims to “ensure the most efficient declaration, allocation and use of available airport capacity in order to optimize benefits to consumers, taking into account the interests of airports and airlines.”

The allocation should consider existing operators, as well as allowing access opportunities for other airlines and startups. As such, the IATA guidelines state that 50% of available capacity should be allocated to new entrants.

Ryanair WIzz and easyjet aicraft together on the apron

Photo: Getty Images

Selling slots

Slots at the busiest airports can also function as rather valuable assets for airlines, as they can be traded and sold to other carriers. This operates separately from the IATA seasons and slot reallocation process. Although IATA does not auction or sell available slots itself, it does permit airlines to trade slots in this manner.

The most desirable slot pairs can sell for very high prices. One of the most expensive deals to date was the purchase in 2016 of a pair of slots by Oman Air from Air France-KLM for US$75 million. This was a much sought-after early morning London Heathrow arrival slot. More recently, Air New Zealand sold its slot pair (for less desirable times) in 2020 for NZ$42 million ($27 million).

Air New Zealand Boeing 787-9 Tail and Livery

Photo: Getty Images

New slot rules for the upcoming winter season

As established, Sunday, October 30th will mark the start of the 2022/23 IATA winter season. As airlines and airports around the world get stuck into their new schedules, certain rule changes will come into place.

One of the biggest in this regard will concern airports in the European Union. Following more than two years of slot waivers, the EU has decided that now is the time to return to rules similar to those that were in place before the pandemic. There will now be a 75% minimum usage rate, just below the pre-COVID 80% cutoff.

What do you make of IATA’s seasonal schedules and slot rules? Have you ever flown to or from an airport that you know to have been slot-controlled? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

Source: IATA, IATA


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