FAA suspends ‘use it or lose it’ slot rules at US airports (for now)

Mar 11, 2020

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U.S. airlines now no longer have to decide whether to fly empty flights into three congested airports or risking losing their access as the coronavirus dampens demand for air travel.

Carriers have been reducing their schedules both abroad and domestically to cope with a decline in travel. However, at three East Coast airports, schedule-trimming can be a little trickier than just deciding to shut some services down.

New York’s JFK and LaGuardia (LGA) airports, along with Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), are all slot-controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration. That means airlines serving those airports need to receive special permission to land and take off — one slot allows one takeoff or one landing — and those slots are highly restricted. Airlines must use their slots at least 80% of the time, or they can be revoked.

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As a result, airlines seem to have been hesitant about canceling flights at slot-controlled airports. In a recent slate of coronavirus-related cancellations from United Airlines, for example, not a single flight at LGA or DCA was affected. United does not serve JFK.

On Wednesday, the FAA decided to waive the “use it or lose it” provision of its slot control regulations through May 31, giving carriers more freedom to trim schedules as they see fit.

Related: The most up-to-date info about U.S. airlines’ coronavirus-related waivers and schedule changes.

“The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration is temporarily waiving minimum slot-use requirements at U.S. airports to help airlines that cancel flights due to the coronavirus,” the agency said in a statement. “The FAA expects that U.S. carriers will be accommodated with reciprocal relief by foreign authorities at airports in their countries, and may determine not to grant a waiver to a foreign carrier whose home jurisdiction does not reciprocate.”

The move by the FAA comes just days after European regulators suspended similar restrictions at airports under their jurisdiction.

As airlines have been scaling back their flying, slot control regulations have come under scrutiny in recent weeks. Some European operators, concerned about running afoul of those strict “use it or lose it” rules before they were suspended, were flying empty planes — dubbed by some as “ghost flights” — just to meet their slot requirements.

Those decisions were met with ridicule from U.S. airline executives.

Read more: British Airways suspends famed A318 all-business-class flight from London City to NYC.

“It’s also crazy, in Europe people are flying 777s with nobody on board to protect slots,” Scott Kirby, United Airlines’ president said at the J.P. Morgan Industrials Conference on Tuesday. “I mean, if you’re concerned about climate change? Good grief. Flying empty airplanes to protect slots, how ridiculous is that?”

The FAA’s Wednesday decision was not unexpected.

On CBS This Morning Wednesday shortly before the change was announced, JetBlue’s CEO Robin Hayes said a group of airline executives had requested such relief from the Trump administration a few weeks ago. He said he expected it to come imminently.

In its announcement, the FAA also said it will relax its schedule reviews at Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD), Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and San Francisco International Airport (SFO). The agency said it will give credit to airlines for previously-scheduled flights at those airports that were canceled due to coronavirus demand reduction through May 31.

Edward Russell contributed reporting.

Featured photo by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images.

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