Airlines are running ‘ghost flights’ to hold on to valuable ‘use them or lose them’ airport slots amid coronavirus crisis sales slump
- Carriers told to use 80% of their slot allocation or risk having them removed
- Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, says rules were relaxed ‘in aftermath of 9/11’
- Rob Burgess, editor of headforpoints.com, said ghost flights are a ‘dirty secret’
A slump in passenger numbers as a result of coronavirus has led to an increase in airlines running ‘ghost’ flights to hold on to valuable take-off and landing slots at British airports.
The slots are run by the independent slot coordinator ACL on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis, with carriers told to use 80 per cent of their allocation or risk having them removed. The drop in ticket sales has led to some planes being flown empty, it has been reported.
Tim Alderslade, Chief Executive of Airlines UK, the industry body representing UK-registered airlines, argues that this rule, in the current circumstances – airlines are facing an £87bn loss in revenue because of coronavirus – doesn’t make sense.
A slump in passenger numbers as a result of coronavirus has led to an increase in airlines running ‘ghost’ flights to hold on to valuable take-off and landing slots
He said in a statement: ‘The “use it or lose it” rule on airport slots – an airline’s right to take-off from a certain airport at a certain time – means that carriers are being forced to fly half-empty planes or risk losing that take-off slot in future, seriously affecting their ability to plan ahead.
‘It makes no sense whatsoever under these unique and challenging circumstances to force airlines to fly empty aircraft, wasting money and fuel and creating carbon emissions. We urgently need a temporary suspension of the rule – as happened during the financial crisis – to allow airlines to respond to demand and use their aircraft efficiently.’
Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, is in agreement, pointing out that ‘in the aftermath of 9/11 and following the outbreak of Sars, slot rules were quickly relaxed’.
Tim Alderslade, Chief Executive of Airlines UK, argues that the use it or lose it rule in the current circumstances – airlines are facing an £87bn loss in revenue because of coronavirus – doesn’t make sense
MAJOR CARRIERS SLASH SERVICES IN RESPONSE TO CORONAVIRUS CRISIS
The coronavirus outbreak has led to airlines drastically cutting back services. Here’s a breakdown:
171 short-haul flights cancelled from London Heathrow to countries including Italy, France, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland between March 17 and 28.
26 short-haul flights cancelled from London City to Berlin, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Munich, Venice, Rome, Milan and Florence between March 17 and 28.
58 flights to Shanghai and Beijing cancelled until March 31.
29 flights to Hong Kong cancelled until March 31.
12 flights cancelled from Heathrow to JFK between March 17 and 28.
7 short-haul flights cancelled from Gatwick to Italy, France and Albania between March 16 and 25.
6 flights cancelled from London Heathrow to Singapore every other day starting from March 15 (cancelled flights on March 15, 17, 19, 21, 23 and 25) and flights cancelled from London Heathrow to Seoul every other day from March 13-28.
48 Heathrow to Shanghai flights cancelled until April 19 and nine fewer Virgin Atlantic rotations between Heathrow and Hong Kong during March.
500 flights cancelled to Turin, Milan, Verona, Venice, Pisa, Florence, Ancona, Rome, Naples, Bari, Brindisi, Catania and Palermo between March 13 and 31, at least.
Reducing number of short haul flights to and from Italy, from across Europe, by up to 25 per over three weeks from March 17 to April 9.
He added: ‘Today, where the demand impact is greater, we only see short-term alleviation on slots used to fly to China and Hong Kong. Given the almost unprecedented impact on global passenger demand, the UK slot coordinator and the European Commission need to urgently relax the rules for the whole Summer. Common sense must prevail.’
A Heathrow spokesperson, meanwhile, called upon the ACL to take ‘an evidence-based approach, ensuring that the slot rules are sensible for the situation and safeguard the global connectivity that will be required to restart economies once we overcome the immediate threat of coronavirus’.
It’s understood that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has written to the ACL, calling for the slot rule to be relaxed.
Rob Burgess, editor of frequent flyer website headforpoints.com, explained that slots are like gold dust for airlines.
He told MailOnline Travel: ‘Ghost flights are one of the airline industry’s dirty little secrets. They have been going on forever at Heathrow, but usually only in small volumes.
‘Because Heathrow slots are so valuable, they are rarely given up. If one won’t be used for some time, they are sold or leased – British Airways bought a five-year lease on one of the two South African Airways slot pairs last year, for example, when SAA dropped a flight.
‘You also get “slot sitting”, with airlines letting their partners borrow slots short-term rather than lose them. Some of the Flybe services at Heathrow, for example, were using spare Air France, KLM, Delta and Virgin Atlantic slots. Etihad had slots on loan to Air Serbia recently.
‘Running “ghost planes” is very much a last resort, because any revenue is better than no revenue. It is more likely that, with BA, it will ground long haul planes and add additional short-haul flights – with tickets sold – to use the slots. For Virgin Atlantic, if it grounds long-haul routes, it is possible that it may have to lease a short-haul plane and fly it from Heathrow to a domestic airport, empty, and then back again the next day.
‘It isn’t environmentally friendly, of course, but with Oman Air paying $75million for a Heathrow slot pair a few years ago, they are clearly too valuable to lose.’
From March 17 British Airways is cutting 171 short-haul flights, 12 flights to JFK, with 58 flights to Shanghai and Beijing cancelled until March 31
Regarding whether the rules should be relaxed, Mr Burgess argues that it might be better for global connectivity if they weren’t.
He added: ‘Arguably the rules could be relaxed, but is this fair? If BA is not willing to fly daily to, say, Bangkok but Thai Airways would be willing to pick up the route, shouldn’t it be allowed to? There are airlines desperate to get into Heathrow and they would start flights tomorrow given the slots – shouldn’t we let them?’
The coronavirus outbreak has led to several major British airlines slashing services.
From March 17 British Airways is cutting 171 short-haul flights, 12 flights to JFK, with 58 flights to Shanghai and Beijing cancelled until March 31.
The crisis is thought to have been one of many factors that led to the collapse of Flybe.
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