European mainline carriers have reacted angrily to new slot control proposals from the European Commission (EC), arguing that Brussels has gone back on its promise to stick to technical issues in this first wave of reform.

The regulation, which was adopted by the EC on 20 June, but still has to make its way through the European Council and Parliament, drew an immediate and angry response from the Association of European Airlines (AEA). It claims that the Commission promised last year to restrict legislation to technical matters, pending wider consultation on the bigger policy issues. Instead the AEA detects elements of wider market access policies embedded in the latest regulation.

"These latest developments are a slap in the face to the airlines, who had been given to understand that the Commission understood our sensitivity on market access issues," fumed AEA secretary general Karl-Heinz Neumeister. The AEA concedes that slot legislation, untouched since 1993, was badly in need of a revision, not least to address lack of consistency in the way that slot allocation is applied and policed. However the association complains that proposed rules "go far beyond technical revision".

EC transport commissioner Loyola de Palacio plays down any implication of radical policy reform. She says that the proposal was simply "necessary to bring more clarity so that the co-ordinators, the airlines and the airports can apply the Community rules smoothly and efficiently".

On the surface, the EC has largely stuck to technical issues, agreeing to put on hold issues relating to the use of slot allocation to ease market access for new entrants. Instead it has called for a study to take place over the next six to nine months looking at options to enhance slot mobility and market access. The main participants will be the Transport and Competition directorates. There has been a history of tension between the two on the slots issue, with Competition taking a more aggressive stance on market access reform.

However, the AEA claims that "market-related elements" have already crept into the proposed regulation. The association highlights the inclusion of a new legal definition of a slot. This defines slots as "entitlements to use the airport infrastructure for the purpose of landing and take-off at specific times of the day during a scheduling season". The regulation also asserts that slots "do not constitute property rights" and should be considered as "public goods".

The AEA argues that this attempt at a new definition "prejudges the entire question of the nature of the rights of airlines with respect to the slots they hold". It also points to the fact that the proposed regulation modifies the definition of a new entrant, for example by preventing established carriers from benefiting from new entrant status through joint operations or alliances with other airlines.

"If the legislation in favour of new entrants at busy airports will benefit anyone it is the carriers from outside the Single Market who will gain at our expense," complains Neumeister. "The Commission should look up from their rulemaking and see what's happening in the real world."

Source: Airline Business