European airlines to keep nearly empty planes this winter to keep airport flights

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

Britta Pederson | AFP | Getty Images

European airlines are using sometimes-almost-empty passenger planes this winter to maintain coveted airport takeoff and landing spots during times of low travel demand.

The recent publicity surrounding the use requirement has sparked controversy and outrage amid growing international concern about climate change and the carbon emissions from aviation.

Meanwhile, airport industry representatives are defending it, arguing that it needs to remain commercially viable, connected and competitive.

Airlines have expressed dismay at the so-called “use or lose” slot rules set by the European Commission, the European Union’s executive body, which were suspended in March 2020 as the industry struggled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It has since gradually recovered, and airlines are now required to use 50% of their allocated airport slots. That number is scheduled to increase to 80 percent this summer.

German airline Lufthansa is one of them, and has cut some 33,000 flights over the winter as the omicron variant hampers demand. Still, its chief executive said it would have to fly 18,000 times during the winter to meet its slot usage requirements. Its subsidiary Brussels Airlines has until the end of March to fly 3,000 nearly empty flights.

“We will significantly reduce more flights due to weak demand in January,” Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr told a German newspaper in late December. “But we have to make an extra 18,000 non-essential flights over the winter to secure our takeoff and landing rights.”

He added: “While climate-friendly exemptions have been found in almost every other part of the world during the pandemic, the EU does not allow it to do so in the same way. It would harm the climate and is the exact opposite of what the EU Commission wants to pass its” The Fit 55” plan to make it happen.”

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

Bloomberg | Christian Bossi

The European Commission adopted the Fit 55 programme in July 2021 to meet the new EU target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030.

Faced with criticism from airlines and environmentalists, airport industry representatives are fighting back, saying there is “no reason” why thousands of near-empty flights should be a reality.

Airports council defends ‘vital air connectivity’

Airport industry body Airports Council International (ACI) expressed support for the European Commission’s stance, arguing that its reduction of the airport slot usage threshold to 50% was “designed to reflect uncertainty in the battered market and the fragile recovery of the aviation industry”.

“Some airlines claim that they are forced to run a large number of empty flights in order to reserve the right to use the airport. There is absolutely no reason for this to be true,” ACI Europe director general Olivier Jankovec said in a statement in early January.

He rejected the concept of completely empty “ghost flights”, as did airlines themselves, saying flights were not completely empty but usually had very few passengers or would be called off if not for slot usage.

“Low load factors are of course a reality throughout the pandemic,” Jankovic said, “but the preservation of vital air connections for economic and social needs is well documented… Balancing Business Feasibility and the need to maintain essential connectivity and protection against anticompetitive consequences is a delicate task.”

Contradicting carbon reduction targets?

Environmental activists were not impressed. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted last week, citing a Belgian newspaper headline: “‘Brussels Airlines schedules 3,000 non-essential flights to maintain airport slots’. “The EU is definitely in a climate emergency. state……”

The aviation sector generates about 14 percent of overall transportation carbon emissions, making it the second-largest source of transportation greenhouse gas emissions after road travel, according to the committee, which also said that if the global aviation industry were a country, It will rank among the top 10 launchers.

This The European Commission says on its website “Aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions” and “actions are being taken to reduce aviation emissions in Europe”.

Belgium’s transport minister, Georges Gilkinet, described the agency’s flight requirements as “environmental, economic and social nonsense”. He sent a letter to the European Commission this month asking airlines to provide more flexibility to keep underbooked planes on the ground.

But a committee spokesman said the current 50 per cent threshold was low enough to reflect consumer demand and provide “citizens with a much-needed continuous air connection”.

Airline Seeking Waiver

Lufthansa spokesman Boris Ogursky told CNBC Wednesday that he thinks the committee’s rule on using 80 percent of the slots for summer 2022 is “appropriate.” However, he noted, “However, air traffic has not returned to normal. The situation remains fluid due to the development of new virus variants and the resulting travel restrictions, so exemptions are still required.”

“Not only next summer 2022, but now in the current winter flight schedule 21/22, there is a need for greater flexibility in time,” Ogurski said. “Without these crisis-related flexibility, airlines will be forced to fly nearly empty planes to secure their slots.”

He added that this practice does not exist outside of Europe. “The rest of the world is taking a more pragmatic approach here, such as temporarily suspending slot rules due to the current pandemic situation. This is good for the climate and airlines.”

ACI’s Jankovec highlighted a provision called “justifiable non-use of slots,” which allows airlines to refer cases to slot coordinators “allowing them to effectively use their assigned airport flights less than 50 percent of the time. moment,” he said.

For Lufthansa, the rule isn’t very helpful, as it only allows the airline to waive a single flight connection, according to Ogursky: “The option doesn’t apply to most of the flights we book each week, resulting in 18,000 cancellations. Essential flights are on the current winter schedule (November 21 to March 22),” he said.

Brussels Airlines media relations manager Maaike Andries also clarified that flights taking off to meet the airport slot usage threshold were not empty; instead, for the upcoming winter, some of the airline’s flights were “full and unprofitable”.

“These flights are usually cancelled by us to ensure that we do not operate unnecessary flights from an ecological and economical point of view,” Maaike added. “However, if we cancel all of these flights, it will mean we pass the minimum limit for keeping flights. The same issue applies to all airlines in Europe because it is European law.”

“On other continents, appropriate exceptions to the normal rules have been made to avoid these unnecessary flights, but in Europe we still need more flexibility.”