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(Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)
(Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

How airport slots are allocated to airlines

  • Slot constraints at busy airports such as those in Mumbai and Delhi leave little option for relatively new airlines to expand operations at these airports
  • Consequently, these airlines miss out on flying a large part of their capacity on profitable routes

Mint analyses how slots are allocated at major airports in India and its impact on airlines.

Why is there a need to allocate slots?

An increase in air traffic at major airports has led to congestion, especially those in the metros. To ensure the most efficient use of airport infrastructure and maximize benefits to travellers, it is essential to have a policy for ideal allocation of the limited capacity at airports to airlines. A transparent and equitable mechanism is needed for viable and smooth operations at the airports. Slot allocation should be considered an interim measure till a longer-term solution of expanding airport capacity is implemented, according to the guidelines of the civil aviation ministry.

How does allocation of slots work?

A slot is a permission given by a coordinator for a planned operation to use the full range of airport infrastructure necessary to arrive or depart at a Level 3 airport (busy airport) on a specific date and time. For the purpose of slot allocation, airports are categorized in terms of congestion levels: Level 1, where the capacity of the airport infrastructure is adequate to meet the demands of users at all times; Level 2, where there is a potential for congestion during some periods of the day, week or season but which can be resolved through cooperation among airlines; Level 3, where capacity is constrained due to insufficient infrastructure.

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How are slots allotted?

Airlines give airports their schedule before summer and winter seasons as per International Air Transport Association norms. Domestic airlines submit their schedule to the Airports Authority of India (AAI) and private airport operators, and foreign airlines to AAI and Air India. Private airports that operate under a joint venture allocate slots in consultation with AAI. Such airports look at the requests of airlines with reference to runway capacity as advised by AAI. If the request is within the capacity, airports approve the slots. Airports convey slot approval for overseas and local flights to AAI, which informs regulator DGCA for approval of schedules.

What are the current shortcomings?

The information about available slots at any busy airport is not placed in the public domain, so there is apprehension of opacity in the slot allocation process. Airlines tend to block slots without utilizing them. The dates for filing of slots by local airlines are not fixed. The appellate mechanism needs to be made more robust. The guidelines should be well-defined and in tune with global best practices.

What is the procedure to return slots?

Airlines can only hold slots they intend to use. To ensure capacity is not wasted, airlines must return any slots they know they won’t use. The regulator reallocates returned slots to other operators. An airline that ceases operations at an airport must return all its slots for the rest of the season and for the next one (if already allocated) and inform the coordinator whether it will use them later. When a carrier is merged with or bought by another airline, its slots go to the latter.

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