Dismay at rhetoric around “ghost flights” as airports trade body reiterates support for slot thresholds

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Airports Council International (ACI) Europe has expressed dismay at the escalating industry and political rhetoric around so-called “ghost flights” and reiterated its strong support for the European Commission’s position on the thresholds for use of airport slots by airlines.

The usage threshold for the current season, Winter 21, is set at 50%. This is, as the European Commission has reiterated, a significantly lower threshold than that set under the 80/20 “use it or lose it” principle applicable in normal times. It is designed to reflect the uncertainties of a badly hit market and fragile recovery for aviation.

Crucially, and as a direct result of the ongoing uncertainties posed by the pandemic, there is also in place a specific provision for what the Worldwide Airport Slot Guidelines calls “justified non-use of slots” (JNUS).

JNUS effectively allows airlines to use their allocated airport slots for less than 50% of the time. It is specifically designed to address the COVID pandemic and covers not only outright travel bans but also restrictions of movement, quarantine or isolation measures that impact the viability or possibility of travel or the demand for travel on specific routes.

It is therefore the case that, with a significantly reduced slot usage threshold and a specific provision for changing circumstances such as that presented by the Omicron variant, airlines are very well protected from the current uncertainties.

As a result, it is unclear why the issue of “ghost flights” is now under discussion. Ghost flights are defined as those voluntarily operated by airlines exclusively for the purpose of retaining historic rights to their slots. Accordingly, ghost flights are not offered for sale, carry no passengers and generate no revenue for airlines. Conversely, flights offered for sale, carrying passengers and generating revenue for airlines cannot be considered as ghost flights.

Low load factors have been a reality throughout the pandemic, but the retention of vital air connectivity for both economic and societal imperatives is well documented.

Olivier Jankovec, Director General of ACI Europe, said: “A few airlines are claiming they are forced to run high volumes of empty flights in order to retain airport slot usage rights. There is absolutely no reason why this should be the reality. As was clearly stated by the European Commission, slot usage rules need to achieve two things in the current circumstances. Firstly, to protect airlines from the worst of unpredictabilities which are out of all our hands. Secondly, and crucially, to also ensure that airport capacity is still used in a pro-competitive way.

“The pandemic has hit us all hard. Balancing commercial viability alongside the need to retain essential connectivity and protect against anti-competitive consequences is a delicate task. We believe that the European Commission has got this right. Talk of ghost flights and of their environmental impacts seems to hint at a doomsday scenario which has no place in reality. Let’s stick to the vital task of recovering and rebuilding together.”

Increased airport slot usage rule welcomed by European airports

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Airports Council International (ACI) Europe has welcomed the decision by the European Commission to set a 64% minimum airport slot usage threshold for the summer 2022 season.

“Moving to a 64% usage rule for next summer is an essential and fully justified step in progressively restoring normal slot usage rules, which should be fully reinstated for winter 2022,” said Olivier Jankovec, Director General of ACI Europe.

As of next summer, airlines operating out of congested EU airports will be required to use their allocated slots for at least 64% of the time to keep them, up from the 50% threshold currently applied. While this is still a way off the normal 80% usage rules, the continued application of ‘force majeure’ provisions will in any case provide airlines with full flexibility and protection from the usage requirement in case of disruptive new travel restrictions.

Jankovec added that the Commission’s decision reflects the new reality of the aviation market where some airlines have downsized structurally while others are looking at expanding. “There is no doubt this will facilitate the continued restoration of air connectivity and at the same time allow for a more effective use of airport capacity,” he said.

The progressive increase in the minimum slot usage threshold is backed by data from both Eurocontrol and airports throughout Europe, which points towards a good level of recovery in the summer season. This would see traffic reaching a substantial percentage of 2019 levels on average, and at some airports and in some peak periods actually equalling or surpassing 2019 traffic.

Following the busy summer season and the resulting need for airports to make appropriate operational plans, airports urge airlines to return slots which are not being used as early as possible. This will provide airports with visibility of planned use of their capacity, which is vital in this period of ramping-up of operations.

AOA labels pre-departure tests “devastating blow” for aviation

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Following the introduction of pre-departure tests for travellers entering the UK, which were introduced on Tuesday 7 December, Karen Dee, the Airport Operator Association (AOA) Chief Executive, has spoken out labelling the new regulations are a devastating blow for aviation.

“This is a devastating blow for aviation and tourism. Pre-departure tests acts as a major deterrent to travel and most of the limited remaining demand following the reintroduction of self-isolation will now fall away, just as airports were hoping for a small uplift over the Christmas holiday.

“Travel and aviation are the only sectors hit with any operating restrictions in response to the omicron variant. The UK and devolved governments should have done the right thing and, alongside the restrictions, announced support for our businesses and our staff to get through another period of shutdown.

“Hundreds of thousands of jobs rely on air travel – Government must recognise this and provide the support needed to safeguard this critical infrastructure upon which our economic recovery from the pandemic depends.”

Aviation start-ups demo their airport projects for Aena Ventures

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Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat Airport staged a Demo Day at the end of last month for five start-ups to showcase the viability of their customer experience solutions in an airport environment. A total of 254 projects were entered into the challenge with applicants applying from 33 different countries around the world.

Prior to demonstrating their ideas the start-ups were guided by mentors from the Spanish airport operator, Aena, throughout a six-month process, to shape their ideas based on five areas specified in the programme: passenger communication, airport sustainability, passenger experience, baggage handling and travel to the airport.

The winning projects will be eligible to apply for a contract with Aena worth up up to €2 million to implement the entire project throughout Aena’s facilities.

The five start-ups included:

Airbot, which launched a conversation app that offers answers to questions from passengers. The multilingual agent can communicate in Spanish, Catalan and English and would be added to the Aena website and app.

Meanwhile, Carwatt carried out a project involving decarbonisation in airport mobility by converting diesel combustion vehicles to fully electric vehicles, using reusable batteries and components.

Chinespain launched “Hi China!”, an app for Chinese passengers with all the information of interest in their language on the airports of Barcelona and Madrid; online booking and payment through their platforms (Webchat and Alipay).

Dubz presented its Baggage as a whole project. The innovative service collects baggage from anywhere in the city of Barcelona as specified by the passenger and checks it. All the passenger has to do is claim it at the destination airport.

Finally, the company Meep developed ‘Aena Mobility’ – the first Mobility as a Service (MaaS) that connects a city’s mobility, by integrating different means of transport on a single platform, with the indoor guide at Barcelona-El Prat Airport, as well as with updated flight information.

Luis Felipe de Oliveira

Airport body calls on governments to implement pragmatic approach to Omicron

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Luis Felipe de Oliveira

In response to flight and travel restrictions by certain countries to/ from destinations where the Omicron COVID-19 variant has been detected, ACI World Director General, Luis Felipe de Oliveira has called upon governments to coordinate and implement pragmatic and risk-based measures based on science.

“We continue to urge countries to work closely with aviation stakeholders – including airports and airlines – prior to and during the implementation of travel measures to facilitate a more efficient application,” he said.

“This situation is another reminder of the urgent need for countries to adopt interoperable digital health credentials for testing and vaccination that are mutually recognised across borders. This will allow countries to better manage their travel measures and adapt to the evolving health situation.”

Underlining that full travel bans and border closures are not a viable solution as variants continue to emerge, Oliveira underlined that, “The entire aviation ecosystem needs to work together with governments to ensure a safe resumption of travel – one that can be sustained to enable the rebuilding of livelihoods, countries and economies.

Oliveira’s European counterpart – the Director General of ACI Europe – Olivier Jankovec added that with Europe’s airports at the front line of a country’s travel policy, they have seen first-hand the dramatic and disproportionate impact of travel bans and other extreme travel restrictions, which have little effect upon the epidemiological situation. Lending its support to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) call for a calm and measured response to the Omicron variant, ACI has welcomed the WHO’s unequivocal guidance to countries not to knee-jerk into travel bans.

“We know beyond any doubt from the experience gained over these past 20 months that blanket travel bans and quarantines are not effective in preventing the spread of new variants,” said Jankovec. “While they have no impact on the epidemiological situation, they do have dramatic consequences upon livelihoods. We urge all countries to follow the WHO advice and make sure they follow evidence-informed and risk-based approaches when reviewing their travel regimes, as part of precautionary measures in relation to the Omicron variant. In particular, targeted pre-departure testing should be preferred over travel bans and quarantines. Effective coordination and alignment at EU level involving all EEA countries, Switzerland and also the UK is a must.”

Underscoring the need to ensure that vaccines are made more widely available across the globe, Jankovec also urged the EU and other European countries to do more to ensure COVAX gets vaccines swiftly to low income countries. “This could also potentially require the EU to align with the US with a view to wave patents and other intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Securing wider and fairer access to vaccination and therapeutics across the world is an absolute prerequisite to effectively mitigate the risk of other variants of concern emerging,” he concluded.

New data points to industry-wide shift towards digitalisation of the passenger experience

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Digital vouchering platform, iCoupon, has revealed new data which points to a shift towards the digitalisation of the passenger experience and airport ecosystem.

The iCoupon voucher platform, which enables adoptees to issue digital vouchers directly to passenger boarding passes, has experienced significant growth since the start of the pandemic. In addition to expanding its network to cover a further 30 airports worldwide, iCoupon has also won 10 new travel retail contracts and been implemented by seven major airlines over the last 18 months.

With flight schedules impacted by the ongoing disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, vouchering has become an essential tool for ensuring passengers receive compensation in line with regulations, such as EU261, and that eligible staff and passengers receive meal entitlements.

“It goes without saying that airports and airlines have had to radically rethink the way they operate their businesses and how they serve their customers,” said Richard Bye, CEO and Chairman of iCoupon.

“The last year-and-a-half has really highlighted the importance of using digital tools within the travel sector to offer a more streamlined, contact-free and convenient service. Many factors have influenced this sift to digitalisation: passenger needs have evolved due to the effects of the pandemic; consumers are demanding tangible sustainability measures; and digital, automated services are now expected as standard. Our rapid growth is symptomatic of the scale and pace of digitalisation within the industry and highlights the wide-reaching benefits of offering an improved passenger experience via digital channels,” Bye continued.

UK airports halve emissions in line with commitment to sustainable growth

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To coincide with its annual conference held on Tuesday 19 October, the Airport Operators Association (AOA) has launched its Decarbonisation Report, which reveals that greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by up to 50.6% since 2010, while passenger numbers increased 41.7% over the same period (2010-2019).

The 18 airports that represented more than 95% of passengers emitted 514,331 tonnes of CO2e in 2010 from sources they controlled (known as scope 1 & 2 emissions), while welcoming 201.7m passengers through their doors.

In 2019, those same airports accounted for 249,824 tonnes of CO2e, 50.6% less than in 2010, while seeing 285.8m passengers travelling, an increase of 41.7%. This is based on the energy used at those airports (known as location-based emissions). If the renewable energy purchased by those airports i included (known as market-based emissions), then overall emissions fell by around 80%.

“Thanks to significant efforts, airports have achieved a major reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions they control since 2010 and this is testament to their commitment to sustainable aviation growth,” said Karen Dee, AOA’s Chief Executive.

She added: “Despite this record achievement, more needs to be done to reach net zero. Our Decarbonisation Report shows that airports that take responsibility seriously and are setting out pathways to further emission reductions.

“Emissions from airports is, of course, not the whole picture. Aircraft emissions account for the majority of the aviation sector’s greenhouse gases. here, too, airports are stepping up the plate.”

AOA’s Decarbonisation Roadmap outlines the measures airports are taking to work with airlines and other stakeholders including ground handlers to reduce emissions as well as to reduce their own energy use and invest in sustainable energy and heat generation, including solar farms on airport land.

Other actions airports are taking include: investing in zero-emission vehicles; improving the energy efficiency of equipment and buildings; scoping options to invest in using or generating renewable heat at airports; upgrading airspace to make the most of the capabilities of modern aircraft and reduce noise impacts and emissions; encouraging staff and passengers to use sustainable transport to the airport, including working with local, devolved and UK governments to invest in sustainable surface access; and working with airlines, universities and aerospace manufacturers to develop zero-emission aircraft and the necessary infrastructure for electric or hydrogen aircraft propulsion.

“As we come out of the pandemic, now is the time to consider how we build back better to achieve that net-zero future. At the AOA Annual Conference today, airport CEOs, Chairman of the Commitee on Climate Change Lord Deben, Ministers, Parliamentarians and investors will discuss what we need to do individually and together on this vital journey to a sustainable future,” concluded Dee.

ACE21: Surviving the pandemic and beyond

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This week has seen the Air Charter Expo (ACE) take place as a hybrid event with those attending the expo at London Biggin Hill joined by delegates from around the world online. Proving a popular event, this year’s expo recorded some 1,100 physical attendees with hundreds of additional delegates tuning in online for the conference sessions.

Sustainability was a key focus on the agenda with VoltAero flying in it’s hybrid-electric Cassio 1 demonstrator (the second time the aircraft has crossed the English Channel) for the static display. VoltAero’s CEO and Chief Technology Officer, Jean Botti, also took part in the conference’s Green Charter 2021 panel discussion. He was joined by Faradair’s Neil Cloughley and representatives from Tecnam to discuss new electric aircraft technology and how operations can become more environmentally sustainable.

Green charter

A session on green operations saw Air bp discuss the role of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in helping the industry reduce its carbon emissions and highlighted the fuel supplier’s ‘book and claim’ solution. The initiative enables Air bp to deliver SAF into the supply chain at one airport location and ‘book’ the carbon reduction associated with it into a registry. A customer can then ‘claims’ those carbon reductions by purchasing the benefit of the lifecycle carbon reductions that have been registered alongside their traditional jet fuel.

Meanwhile, 4Air’s President, Kennedy Ricci, revealed his organisation’s ratings framework to help organisations meet and even exceed the industry’s sustainable goals. He described the ratings framework as an opportunity to “look at the pillars of sustainability and build those into an adaptable and flexible programme.” Nicholas Kroll, Luxaviation’s recently appointed Head of Sustainability added that “the first step operators need to take when addressing sustainability is to look at their operational environment and engage with the different stakeholders (customers, suppliers, employees and local residents),” as he underlined that climate change is a problem that affects everyone across the supply chain.

Sustained growth

Looking at the overall state of the industry Wingx’s Managing Drector, Richard Koe, described the forecast for the business aviation sector as looking extremely positive. Despite a 71% drop in activity in Q1 2020 compared to 2019 movements, business aviation has since seen a strong rebound in traffic with activity now exceeding the levels seen in 2019. Similarly cargo activity is now exceeding 2019 traffic and special missions such as crisis missions and medical shipments have also seen strong growth. Scheduled activity however is still trending around 42% behind 2019 figures, which is primarily due to travel restrictions, lack of demand and aircraft being grounded. Through July 2021 Koe stated that the European charter market has an estimated worth of €1.58 billion.

Looking at what the longer term growth forecast is for the charter sector, VistaJet’s Executive Vice President, Programme Sales, Francesca Swan, pointed out that having a global fleet has meant that VistaJet has been able to shift its fleet around in response to market demand around the globe, which has served the company well over the last 18 months. She also revealed that the company is seeing enormous growth in North America and Europe and is currently 50% up on 2019 figures with ad-hoc acquisitions planned to support this continued growth. She also noted that “pre-pandemic 90% of customers who could afford to weren’t flying privately. However, with commercial routes still not fully recovered and some having been stopped for the foreseeable future these passengers are turning to private aviation.” And while she believes the industry will see sustained growth going forward, certain regions will be more cautious than others.

Clive Chalmers, VP Charter, UK, AirPartner, commented on the balanced demand he is seeing explaining that while some markets have dropped off, others have picked up. “For example traffic from the events and entertainment sector has disappeared, but because scheduled services have been less reliable we’ve seen a pick up in traffic from the energy and sporting sector,” he said. Admitting that the industry still faces a harsh winter as corporate travel still hasn’t recovered he did however say that he had a “positive and optimistic outlook for long-term growth.”

And in line with the East Midlands Airport-based airline RVL Group’s plans to gear up for new commercial opportunities, David Lacy, RVL’s Head of Business Development, stated that being flexible with operations and having an “eclectic fleet of aircraft” has been key to their growth during the pandemic. “July through September 2020 we doubled our cargo revenue due to COVID charters for medical shipments and even the transport of waste water.” He added that the number of COVID tests being transported has meant regular flights every day to accommodate those thousands of tests. Concluding that the cargo market is still showing signs of growth beyond COVID shipments Lacy stated that he forecasts “sustained growth, but with peaks and troughs” with strains in global supply chains creating challenges as well as opportunities for the charter market.

Header image: From left to right: David Lacy, RVL Group, Clive Chalmers, AirPartner, Francesca Swan, VistaJet and Richard Koe, WINGX.

ACI World Customer Experience Global Summit 2021: Airports report on lessons learned during pandemic

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The demand for air travel is there but disparity between regulations and travel requirements in different regions is hampering a faster recovery. That was one of the key messages during a panel discussion on the customer experience during airport recovery, which took place on Wednesday 8 September as part of ACI World’s Customer Experience Global Summit.

The first day of the hybrid event, which has seen delegates and speakers attending in-person in Montreal, Canada as well as online has seen lively and insightful discussions on the importance of customer experience as airports prepare for a long and sustainable recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reach Airports’ new CEO, Andrew O’Brian, who previously oversaw operations at Quito Airport in Ecuador explained that in Latin America and the Caribbean “initially recovery has been driven by the diaspora wanting to reconnect with family and friends.” He also highlighted that in North America much of the outbound travel has been driven by customers seeking out destinations that are easy to travel to in terms of the new measures and testing requirements following the pandemic. He also highlighted the need as we enter this recovery period to ensure that all customers and their needs are being considered. “My mother is in her 80s and would love to get on a plane and see her kids and her grandchildren, but all the additional technology and travel requirements are a confusing prospect for someone who’s not necessarily a seasoned traveller,” he said.

Meanwhile Rafael Alberto Smith, Director of Terminal Operations/ Maintenance & Loading at Punta Cana Airport in the Dominican Republic said that unsurprisingly most of the passengers travelling through his airport are leisure travellers. With Punta Cana airport operated by Corporacion Aeroportuaria del Este (a private corporation run by Puntacana Resort and Club) the airport has been able to diversify by transferring some of its staff across the group’s accommodation facilities while air traffic has been reduced. The airport is also forecasting significant growth in inbound tourism for the winter months as travellers increasingly seek out winter sun destinations following the pandemic. Smith also commended the “excellent job” the Dominican Government has done with its vaccination programme in terms of facilitating the region’s recovery process.

Looking ahead, Jost Lammers, CEO and Chairman of the management board at Munich Airport, said that while different territories are recovering at different speeds there are certain elements of health and safety measures he believes will stay. “We need to reduce these measures as much as possible, but it will be one of the layers of air travel going forward,” he said.

Philippe Rainville, President and CEO of Aeroports de Montreal agreed saying that certain testing facilities installed at Montreal Airport for departing passengers will remain in place. “Country by country there will be some level of testing required as new pockets of disease arise.”

O’Brian urged the airport community to “stay positive,” as he said that at some point the World Health Organization (WHO) will declare the pandemic over. “When the pandemic first started, we had to adapt, be resilient and get creative. We’ve learned tremendous lessons along the way, but I hope all the protocols go and we can put this whole scenario behind us in a year or so.” One of the biggest lessons learned according to O’Brian is that health and space will be at the forefront of airport and terminal design going forward. “Airports have to consider where they will invest and how they will manage that. Everything is about the journey and keeping people safe and healthy.”

Johanne Gallant, President and CEO of Fredericton Airport, also expressed her hope that “everything will go back to normal as soon as possible.” However, she also believes that some elements will continue to be rolled out, such as the digital health pass. She also noted that while passengers will want to see regular cleaning and disinfectant measures some measures, such as physical distancing especially in smaller airports where space is at a premium are simply not practical. “Why are we continuing with social distancing in the terminal and at the gate when as soon as a passenger is on board the aircraft that doesn’t seem to apply?” she asked.

Rainville meanwhile stressed that with communication being key its now more important than ever for airports to be able to connect with their passengers as soon as their ticket is purchased. “We need a direct relationship with our passengers as soon as their flight is booked, so that we can answer their questions around travel and ensure that seamless journey. The technology is there to allow us to do this, it’s now about getting the airlines to work with us and provide us with access to passengers.”

Picking up on the point of communication being key, O’Brian underlined that “the 3 Cs – communication, collaboration and coordination – have never been so acute and important to the airport community.”

Reflecting on the lessons learned throughout the pandemic Gallant concluded: “We’re stronger and more resilient than we ever thought. It’s in the hard times that you see the true characters in your team. We’ve stuck together, we’re here to stay and grow and although we hope it won’t happen we’re far better prepared now should another pandemic come about.”

It was a sentiment that was echoed by her fellow panellists with Lammers adding that one of the key lessons he’s learned has been “to push harder and earlier”.

Smith wrapped up on a jovial note admitting that “other than lowering my handicap during lockdown, as a sector we have come out stronger and we have all realised we are capable of doing things we weren’t expected to do or thought capable of doing.”

Look out for the September issue of Regional Gateway magazine in which we feature an exclusive interview with Reach Airports CEO, Andrew O’Brian. 

Airport merger and acquisition opportunities revealed in CAPA report

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The Centre for Aviation (CAPA) has released a new research report revealing potential airport merger and acquisition opportunities for the second half of 2021 and beyond.

Researched and produced by leading CAPA analysts and backed by industry data, the report highlights airports and airport groups that could be attractive to investors. It also identifies other airports that may be a target for mergers or acquisitions.

“Airport transactions for the most part have ground to a halt as the pandemic bites,” said CAPA’s Managing Director, Derek Sadubin. “But as we begin to see some light at the end of the tunnel, opportunities across the sector are beginning to re-emerge. This new CAPA report supports investors, financers, government and infrastructure planning departments to look beyond just the next few weeks or months ahead and take the first step towards identifying real opportunities for the future.”

The report concludes by pinpointing the operators and investors to watch, based partly on their participation in the sector already and partly on their level of activity before the pandemic.

The impacts of the global pandemic have meant the last 18 months have been the quietest for airport merger and acquisition transactions since the early 19902. While some that were already in the works did proceed, for example in Brazil and Japan, new investment opportunities have been hard to locate.

And while, CAPA acknowledges that investors with a penchant for airports couldn’t be blamed for walking away from a business where the passenger – the ultimate customer base – collapsed by up to 99% along with most of the auxiliary revenue streams. Nonetheless it says, after a lengthy period with little activity in the airport sector, prospects look bright and a few key bids may pave the way for more to come.