European airlines are flying nearly empty planes this winter to keep slots at airports

A Boeing 747-8 Lufthansa takes off from Tegel Airport in Berlin.

Britta Pedersen | AFP | Getty Images

Airlines in Europe this winter are flying passenger planes that are sometimes almost empty in order to hold their coveted take-off and landing spots at airports during a time of low demand for travel.

Recent publicity about this use requirement has sparked controversy and anger at a time of growing international concern about climate change and the carbon emissions from the aviation industry.

Meanwhile, representatives of the airport industry defend this, arguing for the need to maintain commercial viability, connectivity and competitiveness.

Airlines have expressed frustration over so-called “use it or lose it” slot rules set by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, which were suspended in March 2020 as the industry was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. It has since been gradually brought back to now require airlines to use 50% of allotted airport slots. That number is set to rise to 80% this summer.

German airline Lufthansa is among those airlines, and has already cut about 33,000 flights during the winter as an omicron variant hampers demand. However, it has to make 18,000 flights during the winter to meet the slot use requirements, its CEO said. Its Brussels Airlines subsidiary will have to make 3,000 nearly empty flights by the end of March.

“Given the weak demand in January, we would have reduced significantly more flights,” Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr told a German newspaper in late December. “But we have to do an additional 18,000 non-essential flights in the winter just to secure take-off and landing rights.”

He added: “While climate-friendly exceptions have been found almost all over the world during the time of the pandemic, the EU does not allow it in the same way. This is detrimental to the climate and is exactly the opposite of what the EU Commission wants to achieve through its ‘Fit for 55’ programme.”

A Pratt & Whitney PW1000G turboprop sits on the wing of an Airbus A320neo during a delivery ceremony outside the Airbus Group SE plant in Hamburg, Germany, Friday, February 12, 2016.

Bloomberg | Sorry Krisztian

The Commission adopted the “Fit for 55” program in July of 2021 to achieve the new EU target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030.

In the face of criticism from airlines and environmentalists, airport industry representatives are resisting, saying there is “no reason” to make thousands of nearly empty flights a reality.

Airports Council defends vital air connectivity

Airports Council International (ACI) has voiced its support for the European Commission’s position, arguing that its lowering of the airport’s utilization threshold to 50% “was designed to reflect uncertainties related to the hard-hit market and the fragile recovery of aviation.”

Some airlines claim that they are forced to operate large volumes of empty flights in order to retain rights to use the airport slots. “There is absolutely no reason why this should be a reality,” Olivier Jankovic, director general of ACI Europe, said in a statement in early January.

He rejected the idea of ​​completely empty “ghost flights”, as did the airlines themselves, which argue that rather than being completely empty, there are often very few passengers, otherwise they will be canceled if not for use for a specified period of time. requirements.

“Low load factors have of course been a reality throughout the pandemic, but retaining vital air delivery for both economic and societal imperatives is well-documented… balancing commercial viability alongside the need to retain essential contact and protect against—competitive consequences is important,” Jankovic said. Sensitive “.

Contradicting carbon reduction goals?

Environmental activists are not impressed. “Brussels Airlines is making 3,000 non-essential flights to keep airport vents,” Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg wrote on Twitter last week, citing a Belgian newspaper headline. “The European Union is definitely in a climate emergency…”

The aviation sector generates about 14% of carbon emissions from public transport, making it the second largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in transport after road travel, according to the panel, which also says that if global aviation were a country, it would rank second. In the top 10 emitters.

The European Commission says on its website that “aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions” and that it is “taking measures to reduce aviation emissions in Europe”.

Belgian Mobility Minister Georges Gilkenet described the organization’s aviation requirements as “environmental, economic and social nonsense”. He wrote to the European Commission this month to demand more flexibility for airlines to keep insufficiently booked aircraft on the ground.

But a commission spokesperson said the current 50% threshold is a sufficient reduction that reflects consumer demand and provides “a much-needed continuous air connection to citizens”.

Airlines seeking exemptions

Lufthansa spokesman Boris Ogorski told CNBC Wednesday that he believes the commission’s 80% slot rule for summer 2022 is “appropriate.” But he noted, “Air traffic has not yet normalized. Due to the development of new virus variants and the resulting travel restrictions, the situation remains volatile, so exemptions are still necessary.”

“Not only summer 2022, but now also in the current winter flight schedule 21/22, more flexibility will be needed in time,” Ogorsky said. “Without this crisis-related flexibility, airlines are being forced to fly nearly empty planes just to secure their boxes.”

He added that this practice was not practiced in areas outside Europe. Other regions of the world are taking a more pragmatic approach here, for example by temporarily suspending the rules of time slots due to the current epidemiological situation. This benefits the climate and airlines.”

ACI’s Jankovi? highlighted a provision called “No Justified Use of Slots,” which allows airlines to submit status to placement coordinators, “allowing them to effectively use their assigned airport slots less than 50% of the time,” he said. .

For Lufthansa, this provision is not very useful, as it only allows airlines to exempt individual flights, according to Ogursky: “This option cannot be applied to the majority of our booked weekly flights, resulting in the termination of 18,000 non-essential flights during the current winter schedule (21 November – March 22), he said.

As Brussels Airlines Director of Media Relations, Maike Andres, explained that flights that take off to meet the airport use threshold are not empty; Instead, for the upcoming winter season, some of the airline’s flights are “not full enough to be profitable”.

“These flights are usually canceled by us to ensure that we are not operating flights that are not necessary from an environmental and economic point of view,” Mikey added. “However, if we cancel all these flights, it means that we have exceeded the minimum retention time slots. The same problem is valid for all carriers in Europe, because this is European law.”

“On other continents, appropriate exceptions have been made to normal regulations, avoiding these non-essential flights, but in Europe we still need more flexibility.”



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