To Stop ‘Ghost Flights’, European Officials Call for Suspension of Airport Slot Rules

Sharply reduced demand for air travel—being attributed to consumers’ reaction to the coronavirus outbreak—means that airlines are having to cancel some routes and reconsider their flight schedules to consolidate the smaller number of passengers traveling to and from global destinations.

a plane sitting on the tarmac at an airport: London airport with aircraft lined up at the gates.

But, those airlines flying to or from Europe are also faced with a conundrum when it comes to the so-called “use-it-or-lose-it” rule; a European Union (EU) law, which states that, in order retain their reserved takeoff or landing slots for the following season, airlines must fly in those slots at least 80 percent of the time or risk losing them to rival carriers.

With these prized takeoff and landing slots sometimes considered to be worth as much as $50 million per pair at congested airports like London Heathrow, it’s not worth risking their loss, since air carriers expect the current travel slump to lift as the warmer spring and summer months approach.

Airlines have, therefore, reportedly taken to operating what are being referred to as “ghost flights”, which carry few or even no passengers onboard, simply to retain their airport slots. Many argue that common sense dictates the rules be adjusted in light of the current social climate created by COVID-19.

Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, told CNBC, “In the aftermath of 9/11 and following the outbreak of SARS, slot rules were quickly relaxed. Yet today, where the demand impact is greater, we only see short-term alleviation on slots used to fly to China and Hong Kong.”

Needless to say, given the unwarranted carbon emissions produced while flying near-empty planes, environmental activists are up in arms over the practice. “It’s absurd to fly empty planes and cause planet-heating emissions that are completely unnecessary,” Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace U.K., told CNBC.

On March 9, 2020, U.K. Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, wrote to the European Commission, urging it to temporarily suspend the use-it-or-lose-it law, arguing that it makes both “environmental and financial sense”.

The following day, the EU Commission responded with an assurance that it would soon implement some action to curb continued ghost flights, although further details and a timeline for implementing any such legislation have yet to be revealed.

European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, declared, “The commission will put forward very rapidly legislation regarding the so-called airport slots,” according to The Guardian. “We want to make it easier for airlines to keep their airport slot, even if they do not operate flights in those slots, because of the declining traffic,” she said.

Related video: Amid Coronavirus, UK Ghost Flights Wasting Fuel, Polluting the Air: Report (Provided by Veuer)

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