European airlines are being forced to fly nearly empty passenger flights this winter in order for the airlines to keep prized take-off and landing sites at airports at a time when the demand for air travel is quite low.
At a time when there is rising international concern about climate change and the carbon emissions produced by the aviation sector, recent news surrounding this usage restriction has sparked controversy and indignation.
Meanwhile, leaders from the airport business are supporting it, stating that it is necessary to ensure commercial viability, connectivity, and competition.
Airlines have expressed dissatisfaction with the European Commission’s “use it or lose it” slot restrictions, which were suspended in March 2020 as the airline industry was knocked out by the Covid-19 pandemic. It has now been gradually reinstated, with airlines now being required to use 50% of their allotted airport slots. This summer, the percentage is expected to rise to 80%.
Lufthansa is one of those airlines, and it has already cut 33,000 flights throughout the winter season due to the omicron variant’s stifling demand. Despite this, its CEO stated that it must fly 18,000 trips throughout the winter season to achieve its slot use criteria. By the end of the year, its subsidiary Brussels Airlines will have to fly 3,000 almost-empty flights.
“Due to 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 make 18,000 additional, unnecessary flights in winter just to secure our take-off-and-landing rights.”
He added: “While climate-friendly exemptions were found 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 with its ‘Fit for 55’ program.”
The Commission adopted the “Fit for 55” programme in July 2021 to fulfil the new EU objective of lowering greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030.
In response to airline and environmental criticism, airport sector representatives are fighting back, claiming that there is “no reason” why thousands of near-empty flights should be a reality.
The European Commission’s decision to decrease the airport slot use criteria to 50% was “intended to reflect the uncertainty of a badly struck market and shaky recovery for aviation,” according to airport industry group Airports Council International (ACI).
“A few airlines are claiming they are forced to run high volumes of empty flights in order to retain airport slot usage rights. There is absolutely no reason why this should be the reality,” Olivier Jankovec, Director General of ACI Europe, said in a statement in early January.
He, like the airlines, has dismissed the idea of flying fully empty “ghost flights.” Instead of being completely empty, the flights often have only a few people and would would be cancelled if it weren’t for the slot utilisation requirement.
“Low load factors have of course been a reality throughout the pandemic,” Jankovec said, “but the retention of vital air connectivity for both economic and societal imperatives is well documented … Balancing commercial viability alongside the need to retain essential connectivity and protect against anti-competitive consequences is a delicate task.”
(Adapted from CNBC.com)