Brussels is resisting pressure to change rules that force airlines to use or lose their valuable landing slots after warnings of thousands of half-empty and polluting “ghost flights” operating this winter.
German airline Lufthansa has said it will be forced to operate 18,000 flights unnecessarily this winter to comply with EU rules which means airlines have to use or surrender their slots regularly.
Some EU governments are also demanding changes to the Commission rules that require airlines to use 50 percent of their slots this winter or return them to be reallocated, below the normal 80 percent.
But EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean told the Financial Times the rules “give airlines the necessary flexibility to prevent empty flights”. She pointed out that flight data shows that air traffic this winter is about 77 percent from pre-pandemic levels, and close to estimates of 79 percent predicted for the beginning of the year.
“While we must remain cautious, this may indicate that the impact of the fourth wave and the Omicron variant on air travel may not be as negative and long-lasting as initially feared,” Valean said.
The EU’s closing threshold will rise to 64 percent in the summer, when demand for flying is expected to recover. When there are travel restrictions in place, airlines can claim force majeure and not have to use the slots.
Belgian Transport Minister George Gilkinet also called for changes to the system, warning that ghost flights could undermine the EU’s ambitious emission reduction targets.
In a letter to Valean, seen by the FT, Gilkinet called for “swift action” to reduce the 50 percent threshold and “offer new release opportunities”[for carriers]. . . at least for the winter season 2021/2022 and summer 2022, and until a way out of this coronavirus crisis can be confirmed. ”
Lufthansa’s uneconomic flights will still carry passengers who want to fly, but will be so quiet that the airline will cancel it if it can do so without losing future landing rights at key airports, including Frankfurt.
Carsten Spohr, CEO of Lufthansa, said the disruption caused by the Omicron variant means regulators should have gone further this winter to prevent unnecessary flying.
“While climate-friendly emissions for this have been found in almost all other parts of the world during the time of the pandemic, the EU does not allow it in the same way. “It harms the climate and is exactly the opposite of what the EU Commission wants to achieve,” Spohr told German media.
Take-off and landing rights at busy airports are among airlines’ most valuable assets, and can swap hands for tens of millions of pounds.
The question of how to deal with gaps during the crisis has caused a rift in the aviation world, pitting flag carriers like Lufthansa against low-cost challengers like Ryanair and Wizz Air.
Long-haul carriers, hit hard by the crisis and cut off from many of their routes, have argued that the rules of “use it or lose it” should be abandoned during the pandemic, while low-cost airlines are trying to use the pandemic to to seize land, insisted that full competition return.
Valean said some low-cost airlines “adapted quickly to the new reality and often reached activity near 2019 levels”. She defended the closing rules, saying it was essential to protect airports, consumers and competition between carriers.
Brussels has the power to change the thresholds for the summer by using legal acts. After this period, the commissioner said the EU would consider “how to ensure that future airport slot rules provide resilience in times of crisis and stimulate competition that benefits consumers and connectivity”.
Air-France-KLM said it was “in favor of re-evaluating. . . rules so that airlines continue to operate flights only when demand justifies it ”, but added that it will not operate empty flights just to keep slots.
Airlines for Europe, a trade group, said it was in touch with the commission to ensure that force majeure rules were “applied consistently and flexibly”.