European airlines are flying almost empty planes this winter to retain space at the airport

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

Britta Pedersen | AFP | Getty pictures

Airlines in Europe this winter are flying passenger planes that are at times almost empty to hold coveted take-off and landing sites at airports at a time of lower travel demand.

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

Meanwhile, representatives from the airport industry are defending it, arguing for the need to maintain commercial viability, connectivity and competitiveness.

Airlines have expressed frustration over so-called “use it or lose it”[ads1]; slot machine rules established by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, which was suspended in March 2020 when the industry was burdened by the Covid-19 pandemic. It has since been brought back gradually to now require airlines to use 50% of their allocated airports. This number is scheduled to increase to 80% this summer.

The German airline Lufthansa is among these airlines, and already reduces around 33,000 flights during the winter season as the omicron variant requires it. Nevertheless, it must make 18,000 flights during the winter season to meet the requirements for track use, said the CEO. The subsidiary Brussels Airlines must make 3,000 almost empty flights by the end of March.

“Due to weak demand in January, we would have significantly reduced more flights,” Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr told a German newspaper in late December. “But we have to make 18,000 extra, unnecessary flights in the winter just to secure our take-off and landing rights.”

He added: “While climate-friendly exceptions were found in almost every other part of the world during the pandemic, the EU does not allow this in the same way. It damages the climate and is exactly the opposite of what the EU Commission wants to achieve with its ‘Fit for 55’ -program.”

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

Bloomberg | Krisztian Sorry

The “Fit for 55” program was adopted by the Commission in July 2021 to meet the EU’s new target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 55% by 2030.

In the face of criticism from airlines and environmentalists, representatives from the airport industry withdraw and say that there is “no reason” for the thousands of almost empty flights to be a reality.

Airports Council defends “important air connection”

The airport industry body Airports Council International (ACI) expressed support for the European Commission’s position, claiming that lowering the threshold for the use of airport slots to 50% was “designed to reflect the uncertainty of a hard hit market and fragile aviation recovery.”

“A few airlines claim to be forced to operate large quantities of empty flights in order to retain the rights to use airport slots. There is absolutely no reason for this to be the case,” said Olivier Jankovec, CEO of ACI Europe, in a press release. statement in early January.

He rejected the notion that completely empty “ghost flights” are flown, as do the airlines themselves, who say that instead of being completely empty, the flights often have very few passengers and would otherwise be canceled if it were not for the use of the slot machine. claim.

“Low load factors have, of course, been a reality throughout the pandemic,” Jankovec said, “but the maintenance of vital air connectivity for both economic and societal imperatives is well documented … Balancing commercial viability along with the need to maintain key connections and protect against anti-competitive practices Consequences are a delicate matter. “

Conflicting carbon reduction targets?

Environmental activists are not impressed. “‘Brussels Airlines makes 3,000 unnecessary flights to maintain slots at the airport,'” Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg wrote on Twitter last week, referring to a headline from a Belgian newspaper. “The EU is clearly in a climate emergency …”

The aviation sector generates about 14% of carbon emissions from total transport, making it the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from road travel, according to the commission, which also says that if global aviation were a country, it would rank among the top 10 emitters. .

The European Commission states on its own website that “aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions” and that it “takes action to reduce emissions from aviation in Europe”.

Belgian Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet described the institution’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 flights on the ground.

But a spokesman for the commission said the current 50% threshold is a sufficient reduction that reflects consumer demand and offers “much-needed continued air connection to citizens”.

Airlines applying for exemption

Lufthansa spokesman Boris Ogursky told CNBC on Wednesday that he thought the commission’s slot machine rule with 80% use for the summer of 2022 was “appropriate”. However, he noted, “however, air traffic has still not returned to normal. Due to the development of new virus variants and the resulting travel restrictions, the situation remains unstable, so exceptions are still necessary.”

“Not only next summer 2022, but also now in the current winter plane 21/22, there will be a need for more flexibility in time,” said Ogursky. “Without these crisis-related flexibility, airlines are forced to fly with almost empty planes just to secure their slots.”

He added that this practice is not in place in regions outside Europe. “Other regions of the world are taking a more pragmatic approach here, for example by temporarily suspending slot machine rules due to the current pandemic situation. It benefits the climate and airlines.”

ACI’s Jankovec highlighted a provision called “Justified Non-Use of Slots”, which allows airlines to present the case to their slot coordinators, “which allows them to effectively use their assigned airport slots in less than 50% of the time,” he said.

For Lufthansa, this provision is not very useful, as it only allows airlines to exempt single flight connections, according to Ogursky: “This option can not be used on most of our weekly booked flights, resulting in the end of 18,000 unnecessary flights during the current winter plan (21 Nov – 22 March), ┬╗he said.

Maaike Andries, media manager at Brussels Airlines, also emphasized that the flights that take off to meet the threshold for using airport slots are not empty; rather, for the upcoming winter season, some of the airline’s flights are “not sufficiently filled to be profitable.”

“These flights will normally be canceled by us to ensure that we do not operate unnecessary flights from both an ecological and an economic point of view,” Maaike added. “But if we were to cancel all these flights, this would mean that we exceed the minimum limit to keep our slots. The same problem applies to all airlines in Europe, as this is a European law.”

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

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