Managing temporary reductions in airport capacity

By Sophie Riopel Gewelt, Manager, Airport Slots and Capacity Policy, ACI

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, national authorities, airport operators and airlines have imposed various measures to face the crisis. Some of these decisions, such as social distancing in airports or mandatory use of face coverings, are made for purely health-related reasons, and can be mandatorily imposed by regulators depending on local circumstances.

Others, such as airlines operating less flights or airports shutting down part of their facilities in response to lower passenger demand, are mainly commercial decisions which also make sense from an environmental perspective.

In normal times, airport capacity is declared twice per year as per the Worldwide Airport Slot Guidelines (WASG) Calendar of Coordination Activities. It is declared in the form of parameters, which are limits per time period (1 hour, 20 minutes, etc.) that the airport can process in its congested systems.

These most commonly include runways, gates, check-in counters and terminal passenger throughput for security checkpoints and immigration. Limits are calculated based on assumptions and data.

Airport terminal passenger throughput limits, for example, are calculated based on several factors, including assumptions on how much space each passenger occupies. If this space needs to be increased, passenger throughput limits need to be lowered.

Because boarding procedures may need to be changed to ensure social distancing is respected, there is also a possible ripple effect on other systems, notably gates because of longer turnaround times.

Capacity limits are complex to establish because the entire system needs to be considered. Setting them too low results in lost potential traffic considering the capacity of the airport system, while setting them too high results in systemic congestion.

The importance of industry collaboration

The Worldwide Airport Slot Guidelines (WASG) provide the global air transport community with a common set of standards for the management of airport slots at coordinated airports and of planned operations at facilitated airports. Unsurprisingly, the guidelines were not written to manage the current exceptional scenario. While there are provisions on airport capacity reductions, the only advice provided on reductions announced after the Initial Submission Deadline is that they must be avoided except in exceptional circumstances. (WASG para 6.10.3).

The Initial Submission Deadline, which is when airlines submit their slot requests for the upcoming season, occurs months before operations: for Summer 2020, the deadline was on 3 October 2019. For Winter 2020-2021, it was on 14 May 2020.

The pandemic has made it impossible to provide such clarity months in advance. Airlines are adjusting their schedules closer to the date of operation in response to uncertain demand as we enter the recovery period. Airports need to decide when to reopen their facilities to welcome back much needed traffic, while avoiding operating “ghost terminals” that would be financially and environmentally unjustifiable. To achieve this delicate balance, close collaboration and open communication between airports and airlines is key. Both are aligned in terms of fostering the prompt and safe return of passengers to the skies.

Depending on the evolution of the pandemic and on local circumstances, national authorities may also decide to implement travel restrictions or more stringent social distancing requirements in response to a resurgence of cases.  As we enter the recovery period while also preparing for a possible second wave, we must be cognizant of the fact that that flight scheduling needs to adapt much more quickly than usual. As such, globally consistent guidance is needed to provide airports, airlines and slot coordinators clarity on the impact of these measures on slot portfolios.

WASB best practice paper on managing temporary reductions of airport capacity

The Worldwide Airport Slot Board (WASB), which comprise an equal number of airports, airlines, and coordinators, has the mandate to propose areas of policy development and consider ways of improving procedures to improve slot allocation and consumer outcomes.

In response to need for globally compatible responses when temporary reductions of airport capacity occur, the WASB issued detailed guidance on managing temporary reductions of airport capacity:

  1. It establishes the principles of temporary airport capacity reductions and outlines the importance of consultation and transparency;
  2. It provides guidance to the stakeholders of the slot allocation process, notably on how to measure the required schedule reductions while ensuring a fair distribution of cancellations across carriers; and
  3. It provides an important statement that slots cancelled as a result of temporarily reduced capacity parameters after the confirmation of seasonal capacity parameters should be treated as justified non-utilization at both ends of the route and considered as operated to ensure fair treatment in respect to the 80/20 rule.

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