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80/20 rule looks to survive government overhaul of Sydney slots

written by Jake Nelson | February 21, 2024

Transport Minister Catherine King. (Image: Catherine King MP/Facebook)

The federal government has unveiled a suite of reforms for the troubled Sydney Airport slot system but has confirmed no change to the controversial 80/20 rule.

Movement caps and curfews will also remain at Sydney Airport, but the government says its reforms will increase transparency around slot allocation, hold airlines accountable for “misuse” of slots, make the allocation process more efficient and introduce a “recovery period” after major delays.

Currently, an airline can keep a takeoff slot indefinitely as long as it operates the slot at least 80 per cent of the time, a rule whose architect – Rex deputy chairman John Sharp, who implemented it when he was in government – now calls it “too generous”.

According to Transport Minister Catherine King, who said no changes will be made to the 80/20 rule, transparency and accountability will be “significantly increased” in the slots process, with a refreshed compliance regime to benefit new entrants and crack down on what she labels as “slot misuse”.

“Airlines will be required to provide regular information on how they use slots, such as reasons for cancellations or major delays, and this monitoring information will be regularly published,” she said.

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“Independent audits of slot usage will be undertaken, with results published, to better detect and crack down on anti-competitive behaviour. This will help make sure that travellers have better information about airline performance.

“The first such audit will be carried out this year, meaning that any misuse of slots will be uncovered and acted upon as soon as possible.

“To ensure slots are not misused, the Government will modernise the compliance regime to include penalties that address anti‑competitive behaviours, along with updated and strengthened enforcement tools for the Government to watch airlines more closely and take effective legal action where necessary.”

Peak period times will be shortened from 6‑11am/3-8pm to 7-11am/5-8pm, with regional NSW services available to apply for any slot during those times instead of only those set aside for priority access for these services.

“The peak period is changing to help free up currently unused slots during 6-7am and 3-5pm so that the airport can better operate in the way it was always intended to,” said Minister King.

“In addition, when allocating slots to airlines, the Slot Manager will be required to consider giving priority to regional NSW airlines asking for peak period slots (7‑11am/5‑8pm) among the other priorities for slot allocation.”

Finally, a new “recovery period” will allow for 85 movements per hour – up from the cap of 80 – for up to two hours on any day when there is a severe weather event or other major disruption.

“This recovery period will not extend into curfew hours and there will be mandatory publication of information about when and why the recovery period is used so that the community can be confident it is being used properly,” said Minister King.

“This change will not increase noise impacts on communities, but it will mean more travellers can reach their destinations and spend the night at home rather than on a terminal floor or in a hotel room.”

The reforms follow months of controversy over the slot system, with smaller carriers such as Rex and Bonza, as well as Sydney Airport itself, all among those calling for reform.

The slot rules are necessary because two aircraft cannot simultaneously take off on the same runway, but have led to accusations that major carriers are effectively gaming the system to take advantage, though both Qantas and Virgin have vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

The government is planning to release an Aviation White Paper this year, which will set policy direction for the aviation sector to 2050.

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