Skies full of emptiness

Skies full of emptiness

If you live near an airport or something similar you might have noticed that the planes are taking off as usual during the pandemics, right? Toilet papers, pasta, alcohol (both hand sanitizers and booze), those are items that people run to the stores to buy. The weird thing is that on none of those lists of most bought items you will find plane tickets. Everyone should be at their houses, not going on domestic or even international flights.

Fuel, staff, maintenance all of these are incredibly costly. The question persists: why are our skies full of airplanes, then? The answer is somewhat complex and involves a more lucrative and high stakes slots game than you will ever find in any casino in Las Vegas.

There is something that airlines must protect at – literally – any costs: their scheduled time on valuable routes.

What are slots?

Have you ever wondered how the busiest hubs in our planet can still fit all passengers at full capacity? How, with a shortage of runways, all planes can land and take off? To manage this crazy system, capacity at congested airports is divided into slots, extremely precious assets for airlines. In simple words, they are the facility to land, disembark passengers, refuel, take new passengers and then take off within highly regulated space of time.

Carriers then plan their schedules based on slot availability at both ends of the route. Having a pilot and a plane is not enough: If you take off from one place you need to know you can land at a certain time on another.

It seems like a difficult task to plan all this global craziness. That’s why the allocation lasts six months: summer and winter season schedules. Sure, for us who stayed for the last four months at home (I hope you did if you live in Brazil!), this seems like an eternity. But turns out, as Einstein said (this one is for real, I swear), time is relative. To replan all of this twice a year would be too complicated, so there’s a rule that states that if airlines use their slot at least 80% of the time, they are allowed to retain the slot for the following season.

Because of this system, airlines reducing their usage of slots risks losing it. Cutting capacity is threatening the airlines’ possession of their slots, which is why planes might still be operated even when no one is flying aboard.

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Written by: Esteban Aguilar

Esteban Aguilar

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