Losing on the slots


The departures board at Liverpool John Lennon Airport took on an exotic air on Saturday morning, with Jordan Aviation, KlasJet of Lithuania, South African Airways, Star East of Romania and Air X of Malta, which calls itself: “The most diversified airline in the world.”

The destination for all of these flights (and many more, on Blue Air, Danish Air Transport, Wind Rose Airlines and Ukrainian International) gave the game away: Kiev.

They were lined up to fly Liverpool fans to the Champions League final in the Ukrainian capital against Real Madrid.

But two airlines were notable by their absence: Ethiopian and SiAvia of Ljubljana. Despite being contracted by agents and making all the necessary applications for slots, they were refused permission to fly to Kiev. Many hundreds of supporters with match tickets had to make do with watching on television rather than from the terraces of the Olympic Stadium.

Football needs flying: the industry surrounding the “beautiful game” depends on the ability for players and fans to travel around Britain, Europe and the world.

Sometimes clubs abuse the privilege: in 2012 I reported that Arsenal had chartered a plane to fly the team from Luton Airport to Norwich, a distance of 89 miles which took just 14 minutes. The club called it “the most time-efficient option”.

But aviation is fundamental to a tournament like the Champions League. And when UEFA decided to award the city of Kiev with the right to host this season’s final, it presumably discussed the need to fly supporters there.

A brief back-of-a-match ticket calculation on the amount of capacity needed would have to assume the worst case scenario: two big teams from the western reaches of Europe who will mainly want to fly. That is certainly what happened with Liverpool and Real Madrid beating Roma and Bayern Munich respectively to reach the final.

With 16,000 tickets assigned to fans from each of the finalists, and assuming that perhaps half of them would fly in on scheduled flights or travel by other means, that translates to as many as 100 flights in and out.

They presumably concluded that Kiev has two reasonable airports, and over the course of a day and a half there should have been little problem handling so many flights. 

Yet for reasons which are still elusive, slots were not assigned to the Ethiopian and Slovenian carriers.

Some disappointed fans have railed against the agents who chartered the planes, and the airlines themselves. But from all the evidence I can see, neither party are at fault. If you’re a travel agent setting up charter flights you don’t personally ring around every airline in the world and see if they’ve got a spare plane; you call a broker who has all the right contacts.

This is a high-end, very professional business that looks after Hollywood stars, billionaire business people and sports teams. They have all the contacts with spare capacity, which explains the colourful range of aircraft on the apron at Liverpool Airport.

Ethiopian Airlines, an equally professional operation, applied for all the permissions it needed for a very complicated operation which involved deploying crews from Addis Ababa to Paris and Frankfurt as well as getting slots in and out of those airports. Everything went smoothly apart from the most crucial element: authority to land at, and take off from, the main international airport in Kiev, Boryspil.

It became apparent only on Thursday afternoon that Ethiopian’s beautiful new Airbus A350 would not be appearing at the airport (though a Boeing 787 service was operated). 

If the fans had been told about the problem a week earlier, they could have made other arrangements. Some grabbed the last-minute chance of a Luton-Sofia-Tel Aviv-Kiev itinerary, but seats disappeared faster than you could say Mohamed Salah – Liverpool’s star striker so sadly injured in the final.

Liverpool fans had in any case started at a disadvantage because of the timing of the semi finals: Real Madrid qualified first, allowing Spanish fans to buy up all the good-value scheduled flights through many of the usual connection points, such as Amsterdam, Prague, Vienna and Istanbul. They did not deserve even worse luck with charters being cancelled.

UEFA must conduct a robust investigation into what went wrong – and ensure that all the ducks are in a row before the 2019 Champions League Final in Madrid (Real’s recent form suggests they will be there) and, more geographically challenging, the 2020 decider in Istanbul.

It was Bill Shankly, the late Liverpool manager, who said: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”