Brussels under pressure to change ‘ghost fight’ rules

Brussels is resisting pressure to change rules forcing airlines to use or lose their valuable landing slots after warnings of thousands of half-empty and polluting “ghost flights” operating this winter.

German carrier Lufthansa has said it will be forced to operate 18,000 flights unnecessarily this winter to comply with EU rules which mean airlines have to regularly use their slots or give them up.

Some EU governments are also demanding changes to Commission rules that require airlines to use 50 per cent of their slots this winter or hand them back to be reassigned, down from the normal 80 per cent.

But Adina Valean, EU transport commissioner, told the Financial Times the rules “give airlines the needed flexibility to prevent empty flights”. She pointed out that flight data shows that air traffic this winter is around 77 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, and close to estimates of 79 per cent predicted for the start of the year.

“While we need to remain cautious, it 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,” said Valean.

The EU’s slot threshold is due to rise to 64 per cent in the summer, when demand for flying is expected to recover. When there are travel restrictions in place, airlines can claim force majeure and do not have to use the slots.

Belgium’s transport minister George Gilkinet has also demanded changes to the system, warning that running ghost flights risk undermining the EU’s ambitious emissions reduction goals.

In a letter to Valean, seen by the FT, Gilkinet calls for “fast action” to reduce the 50 per cent threshold and provide “new exemption possibilities [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 uneconomical flights will still carry passengers who want to fly, but will be so quiet that the airline would cancel them if it could do so without losing future landing rights at key airports including Frankfurt.

Reports this week that Brussels Airlines, owned by Lufthansa, was running around 3,000 empty flights this winter attracted criticism from prominent climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr said the disruption caused by the Omicron variant meant regulators should have gone further this winter to prevent unnecessary flying.

“While climate-friendly exemptions were found for this in almost all other parts of the world during the time of the pandemic, the EU does not allow this in the same way. That 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 some of airlines’ most valuable assets, and can change hands for tens of millions of pounds.

The question over how to handle slots during the crisis has caused a rift in the aviation world, and pitted flag carriers such as Lufthansa against low-cost challengers like Ryanair and Wizz Air.

Long-haul carriers, which have been badly hit by the crisis and are cut off from many of their routes, have argued the “use it or lose it” rules should be waived during the pandemic, while low-cost airlines, seeking to use the pandemic to mount a land grab, have pushed for full competition to return.

Valean said some low-cost airlines had “quickly adapted to the new reality and often reached activity close to 2019 levels”. She defended the slot rules saying they were vital to protect airports, consumers, and competition between carriers.

Brussels has the power to amend the slot thresholds until the summer using legal acts. After this period, the commissioner said the EU would assess “how to ensure that future airport slot rules provide for resilience in times of crisis and stimulate competition that benefits consumers and connectivity”.

Air-France-KLM said it was “in favour of re-evaluating . . . rules so that airlines continue to operate flights only when demand justifies it”, but added that it would not operate empty flights just to keep slots.

Airlines for Europe, a trade group, said it was in contact with the commission to make sure force majeure rules were “consistently and flexibly applied”.

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