British Airways and Heathrow Airport have welcomed measures to help airlines prevent last-minute flight cancellations over the summer.
But there are fears the plans could lead to more holiday chaos as airlines prepare to axe more flights.
Government regulations will allow a one-off “amnesty” on airport slots rules, enabling airlines to plan ahead and deliver a more realistic summer schedule with a view to minimising disruption at airports.
Airlines will be able to cancel flights without being penalised for not using their airport slot, but must finalise their summer schedule by this Friday.
It has left airlines racing to rework their summer schedules ahead of the deadline.
It is understood that flights cancelled or removed from airline schedules after the Friday deadline will not fall under the slot amnesty.
A Heathrow spokesperson said: "We encourage airlines to take this opportunity to reconsider their summer schedules without penalty and inform passengers as early as possible of any changes."
Slots are used to manage capacity at the busiest airports, giving airlines authorisation to take off or land at a particular airport at a specified time on a specified day.
Airlines must use slots a certain amount of times each season in order to keep them, and this “amnesty” is giving them the leeway to put a more manageable schedule in place without the risk of losing a slot due to cancelling flights.
British Airways services from Heathrow are expected to bear the brunt of new cancellations that will hit thousands of passengers.
A spokeswoman for British Airways said: “We welcome these new measures, which help us to provide the certainty our customers deserve by making it easier to consolidate some of our quieter daily flights to multi-frequency destinations well in advance, and to protect more of our holiday flights.”
A spokesperson for Heathrow said the slot amnesty is “good news for passengers”, adding: “This amnesty will enable airlines to make early choices to consolidate their schedules, boosting the resilience of summer operations and giving passengers the confidence they deserve ahead of their journeys.
“We encourage airlines to take this opportunity to reconsider their summer schedules without penalty and inform passengers as early as possible of any changes.”
Last month, the Department for Transport (DfT) said it would give airlines a short window to hand back slots for the rest of the summer season that they are not confident they will be able to operate.
“This will help passengers find alternative arrangements ahead of time, rather than face the kind of last-minute cancellations seen over the Easter and half-term holidays,” the department said.
This week, Heathrow ordered flights to be cancelled because it could not handle them.
On Thursday and Friday passengers at the airport complained of long queues, cancelled flights and lost baggage as “schedule intervention” and disruptions at UK airports were exacerbated by strikes in Spain.
The threat of industrial action is also continuing to loom in Britain after union members voted overwhelmingly to strike over pay – although no dates have been announced.
BA staff are demanding the 10% of pay they had “stolen” from them last year as they faced “fire and rehire” tactics during the pandemic.