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News Navigator: Will airlines lose slots at Japan airports due to virus cancellations?

A monitor at Narita International Airport in the city of Narita. Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, shows a long list of canceled flights. (Mainichi/Tadakazu Nakamura)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about airport rules on the cancellation of international flights in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Question: International flights are being canceled one after another due to the spread of infections of the novel coronavirus, right?

Answer: Yes. This is because countries across the world are imposing entry restrictions. It is possible for airlines to suspend flights in and out of Japan if they receive permission from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism to do so. However, in the case of major gateways such as Narita International Airport east of Tokyo, Haneda Airport in Tokyo, and Kansai International Airport in western Japan, there is a rule in place which can make it difficult for airlines to resume the flights after suspending them for a long time.

Q: What exactly is that rule?

A: Airlines are allocated slots for takeoffs and landings, but if an airline's actual number of flights dips below 80% of the planned figure, then it loses the right to receive those slots on a preferential basis the following year. Airlines' international flight schedules are divided into summer and winter timetables. Calculations are made for each timetable, and if the proportion of operated flights falls below 80% then there is a chance the airline will lose slots in the following year's timetable. This is a rule decided by the International Air Transport Association. It is referred to as the "use it or lose it rule," or "U/L rule."

Q: Why was such a rule created?

A: Many airlines want to use major airports, but there is a limit to how many flights those airports can accept. If the slots allocated to a particular airline are left unused due to the cancellation of flights, those valuable positions are being wasted, so the rule was created to encourage airlines to try to bring in passengers.

Q: Will airlines end up violating the rule because of the coronavirus outbreak?

A: The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has informally decided not to apply the rule for suspensions that occur as a result of the spread of the novel coronavirus until the end of May this year. This is because if airlines try to keep their proportion of flights high in spite of a significant drop in passenger numbers, their losses could balloon.

(Answers by Munehisa Ishida, Business News Department)

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