No flights but the slots remain: Monarch scores a post-mortem win

Monarch Airlines A320 G-ZBAB by Andy Mitchell CC-SA

When Monarch Airlines halted operations last month the carrier held very little in the way of fungible assets. The company’s backers focused on a single and decidedly virtual possession to cash out: Landing slots at various UK airports. Airport Coordination Limited (ACL), the group that manages the slots, sought to revoke those assigned to Monarch and redistribute them to airlines still flying. ACL won an early court case but, this week an appeals court ruled that Monarch should have its slots at Luton and Gatwick airports allocated as if it were still flying. Those slots will be sold by Monarch’s bankruptcy administration to pay out creditors.

Read more: Time runs out for Monarch Airlines; operations halted

Airport slots typically are a “use it or lose it” proposition. If an airline does not fly the allocated route sufficiently often during the 6-month assignment window the slot is reverted to ACL for assignment to a different carrier. This arrangement has led to “ghost flights” in the past where empty planes operated to squat on slots, hoping to eventually sell the assets. At Heathrow a well-timed slot can be worth tens of millions; the Monarch portfolio at Luton and Gatwick is expected to realize as much as £60 million.

Rather than the slots returning to the pool for reallocation they will be sold, with private equity firm Greybull Capital set to reap the benefits. The company acknowledges that it has a “moral obligation” to reimburse the UK government for the costs of repatriation flights operated after Monarch halted operations. Amusingly, that operation’s cost is reported to be near £60 million as well. Of course, that “moral obligation” is likely to be paid only after other debts are covered, meaning British taxpayers are unlikely to see the full rate recovered.

That money will come from other airlines with deep pockets. Wizzair, IAG, Norwegian, and Easyjet are expected to bid on the slots to support growing operations at those airports and no doubt some smaller players will vie for access as well. Ultimately those costs are passed on to passengers, though amortized over many flights and years of operations.

And so, in a roundabout manner, the airlines that survived Monarch’s collapse pay for its failings while Greybull’s exposure is significantly reduced. That comes on top of news last month that Boeing helped fund the 2017 operations through a release of funds tied to a 737MAX order by Monarch placed in 2014. That 30-aircraft order was extended earlier in 2017 with the execution of options on 15 more MAX planes. Short-term good news for the Boeing order book now will appear as a loss on the balance sheet as those funds will not be recovered in the bankruptcy proceedings.

Header image: Monarch Airlines A320 G-ZBAB by Andy Mitchell Flickr/CC-SA

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. This of course has the net effect of shutting out new entrants at the airports in question. Under IATA SC guidelines, half of the “pool” slots have to be allocated with preference to new entrants over incumbent operators – while in the secondary market no such regulation exists (which is why the EU has traditionally opposed secondary market transactions in favour of transparent neutral co-ordination instead). This kind of transaction has been challenged before and the EU courts have ruled differently from the British courts on similar grounds, but there won’t be enough time to challenge these in the EU system before Brexit takes effect. A very disappointing result.

    1. Agreed that it is generally bad for consumers.

      Then again, the EU seems content to let Easyjet and Lufthansa Group split up the Air Berlin remnants in Germany, so maybe not all that much different on the Continent. :/

    2. Seth Miller, there is a big difference because those are physical assets with underlying value. Airport slots are not – they were never purchased by the airline operating them (other than in a secondary market transaction which is not technically a purchase, but rather an “exchange” of an unfavourable slot plus cash for a favourable slot) – so basically they constitute a cash transfer to the “selling” airline in exchange for an asset that was allocated to them for free whenever they initially obtained the underlying historics.

    3. The Air Berlin slots or the planes/crew? I agree that the planes are physical assets but I also think they’re a commodity rather than the access at DUS/TXL Lufty and Easyjet are buying.

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