One of the consequences of the unjustified war that Russia is waging on its Ukrainian neighbour, is the banning of Russian airlines and all Russian owned aircraft from UK airspace. This means that Russia’s flag carrier, Aeroflot is not allowed to operate its 70 weekly slots (landing and take-off times) into London’s Heathrow airport, from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. There is now huge interest from airlines operating at Heathrow as well as from airlines wishing to operate into Heathrow, as to what will happen with these slots.

 

Apron at LHR
Heathrow is one of the most slot restricted airports in the world | © Heathrow Airport

LHR – Most Slot Restricted Airport

Heathrow is one of the most slot restricted airports in the world and there has long been a secondary market for airport slots, to allow airlines to ‘buy’ their way into London’s primary airport. In the past, Oman Air are alleged to have paid $75 Million for a pair of slots (one take-off and one landing) in order to gain access. If 70 weekly slots became available for free, you can understand the interest from airlines.

There are two considerations with regards to Aeroflot slots. Firstly, can another airline use them now and secondly, what happens to these slots in the future.

Aeroflot are still holding onto their slots but they are not being used. All airport slots in the UK are coordinated by the respected coordination company, Airport Coordination Limited (ACL.) When contacted on this issue, a spokesperson for ACL commented that “Airlines that are subject to current restrictions will need to make some decision on how they will manage any return of slots to ACL. Any slots that are returned will be reallocated in line with the UK Slot Regulation.” This suggests that if Aeroflot return their slots, they will be returned to the slot pool and reallocated to other airlines, on a ‘non-historic’ basis, meaning that whoever uses the slots, will not automatically have the right to use them again in the subsequent, equivalent season, as the ‘historic rights’ to these slots would still reside with Aeroflot. This does mean though, that the slots could become available for this summer season, if Aeroflot returned them now.

It is unlikely however, that Aeroflot would do this as the slots are so valuable. They could invoke the Justified Non Utilisation of Slots (JNUS) clause, where the historic right to slots is protected due to unforeseen circumstances. The JNUS provision has been heavily used by airlines during the pandemic where borders have been closed, preventing airlines from flying. Pre-pandemic, airlines used this clause where circumstances beyond its control, such as strikes or airspace closures, prevented them from flying. As UK airspace has been closed to Aeroflot, they might try to keep hold of the historic rights to these slots by claiming protection under the JNUS provision. ACL have confirmed that they “would give due consideration to any request for JNUS.” Legally, ACL would be required to do so and one suspects they would consult with the UK government on this.

There is huge demand for slots returned to the slot pool even if they do not come with the automatic right to use them in the subsequent equivalent season. Jet Blue are a good example of an airline that has recently been able to operate new services into Heathrow, from New York and Boston, by using non-historic slots, returned to the pool during the pandemic.

Longer term, there may be a call for Aeroflot to be stripped of their slots but at present, under the UK slot regulation, ACL would not have the right to remove these slots, unless Aeroflot went bankrupt. However, ACL have confirmed that

“If Aeroflot does nothing with their slots and held onto them but did not operate, once 30% of the season has passed, ACL could remove the slot”

This is because Aeroflot would not be able to meet the current 70% utilisation rate required for airlines to keep historic rights. These slots would be returned to the slot pool and allocated on an historic basis, to other airlines.

Airlines queueing up to use the Aeroflot slots, will be keeping in close contact with ACL over the next few weeks and months. It is a case of watch this space.

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