More and more airports running out of space

In the U.S., only New York JFK is currently a Level 3 slot-coordinated airport.
In the U.S., only New York JFK is currently a Level 3 slot-coordinated airport. Photo Credit: David Tran Photo/Shutterstock

IATA is sounding alarm bells about the growth in the number of airports worldwide that have reached their capacity for arriving and departing flights.

This summer, 204 airports worldwide are designated as Level 3 slot-coordinated facilities, meaning that they don't have either the runway, ramp or gate capacity to handle all of the flights that commercial airlines, cargo carriers and other air service providers would like to operate there. 

That's up from just 160 slot-coordinated airports in 2012 and 189 such airports in November, IATA said at its Annual General Meeting in Sydney this month. And with the organization projecting that the number of annual worldwide air travelers will double from the 2017 figure of 4.1 billion in the next 20 years, the problem will most likely get worse. In fact, IATA forecasts that as many as 100 additional airports could be declared full in the next 10 years. 

"This is a significant problem for the industry: reducing flexibility, disabling the ability to meet passenger demand without serious constraints and nonoptimal flight schedules to fit in with available capacity," Lara Maughan, IATA's head of worldwide airport slots, wrote in a primer on the issue last December.

"Unfortunately, it also means actual passenger demand will be incredibly hard to serve when there is less than optimal access to the market."

A slot is an arrival or departure at a specific time. Unlike at less crowded airports, at which airlines obtain flying rights through a standard business transaction with the airport authority, flying rights at Level 3 airports are awarded by an independent slot coordinator approximately five months before the October and March respective starts of the winter and summer flying seasons. Slots are awarded first on precedence, so that airlines can maintain ongoing operations. But when new slots open, either because carriers give up frequencies or because the airport creates more departure and arrival capacity, they are doled out in a competitive process, with half of the available slots reserved for carriers not previously operating at the airport.

More than half of the world's slot-coordinated airports were in Europe as of November, with the Asia-Pacific region having the next highest share, at 20%. Twenty-one slot-coordinated airports were in China alone.

In the U.S., only New York JFK is currently a Level 3 slot-coordinated airport.

Among the major world airports that are slot coordinated are transatlantic connecting hubs London Heathrow, Paris de Gaulle, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Airports in Beijing, Dubai, Mexico City, Hong Kong and Toronto are also slot coordinated, to name just a few. IATA said that in 2017, 43% of global departing passengers flew out of a slot-coordinated airport.

Along with the 204 Level 3 airports, more than 100 airports in the world hold Level 2 status, meaning that they face congestion during peak hours or peak times of the year. Slots aren't yet restricted at such airports, though some likely will reach Level 3 status if capacity growth doesn't keep up with demand.

Chicago O'Hare, Los Angeles International, San Francisco, Newark, Seattle and Orlando are designated Level 2 airports. New York La Guardia and Washington Reagan are also subject to slot controls.

A relatively ample amount of runway space is the primary reason that the U.S. doesn't have nearly the number of slot-coordinated airports that Europe and the other regions of the world have, Maughan said in an interview.

Nevertheless, U.S. travelers will still be impacted as more airports around the world reach capacity.

"It was one of the ostensible reasons that American canceled its Chicago-Beijing service," said Bob Mann of the consultancy R.W. Mann and Co. "They couldn't get viable slot times."

American will stop that route effective Oct. 20.

Easing slot shortages

New construction should ameliorate some impacts of air traffic growth.

For example, China has robust plans in place for the construction of new airports, including a second Beijing airport, which is set to open next year and will serve up to 100 million passengers annually.

Mexico City also has an airport under construction, and this month the U.K. approved a plan for a third runway at Heathrow.

Not everyone in the aviation industry is as alarmed about the growth of slot-coordinated airports as IATA. Mike Boyd, president of the Boyd Group International consulting firm, said air traffic demand has a tendency to adjust to supply. For example, he explained, the U.S. market has adjusted to the consolidation of hubs that took place as a result of the spate of airline mergers over the past 15 years.

In addition, he said, as major airports fill up, flights often spill over to nearby, smaller airports. Constraints in Dublin, he said, have helped push traffic to Cork. Similarly, constraints at Brussels airport have meant more business for Charleroi, an airport to the south of the city.

"I don't think it is going to be something where if someone wants to get from Paris to Budapest, they won't be able to," Boyd said. "I don't see that happening. If supply is constrained, demand will adjust to it."

Mann, however, said that slot restrictions often lead to anti-competitive behavior by airlines.

"Those who have slots would just as soon have no new slots be created, so that they can maintain control over those markets," he said.

Better management of delays, Mann said, including through more organized sequencing of landings to coincide with available gates, can open slots at an airport.

"The issue for airlines is they want dominance; if dominance means delays, they don't care," he said.

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