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European carriers are flying near-empty planes this winter to keep airport slots


The Airport Tegel, Berlin is the starting point for a Boeing 747-8 Lufthansa plane.

Britta Pedersen | AFP | Getty Images

This winter, European airlines are using passenger planes which are sometimes almost empty to keep their airports open during low travel demand.

The recent publicity surrounding this requirement for usage has caused controversy and anger in a period of increasing international concern about climate change and carbon emissions from the aviation industry.

Meanwhile, representatives from the airport industry defend it by arguing for its commercial viability and connectivity as well as competitiveness.

Many airlines have voiced their frustration at the European Commission’s “use it, or lose it” slot rules. This executive arm of the EU was established in March 2020. The industry was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, it has been gradually restored to require that airlines use half of the airport slots they have been allocated. The figure is expected to rise to 80% in the summer.

Lufthansa in Germany is one of these airlines. The airline has cut some 33,000 flights during the winter season due to the low demand for the micron variant. According to its CEO, they still need to operate 18,000 flights in winter to satisfy their slot use requirements. Brussels Airlines subsidiary is expected to complete 3,000 nearly empty flights by March end.

We would have cut significantly more flights due to January’s weak demand.” Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr told a German newspaperIn December. We have to fly 18,000 more winter flights to protect our landing and take-off rights.

“While exemptions for climate protection were available in nearly all parts of the globe at the outbreak, they are not permitted by the EU.” This is a negative for the environment and the exact opposite of the EU Commission’s ‘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 factory in Hamburg, Germany, on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016.

Bloomberg | Krisztian Bocsi

To meet the EU new goal of reducing greenhouse gases emissions by at most 55%, Commission approved “Fit for55” in July 2021.

Representatives of the airport industry are responding to critics by environmentalists as well as airlines, by saying “no reason why” thousands of nearly empty planes should become a reality.

Airports Council defends ‘vital air connectivity’

Airports Council International (ACI), an industry group representing airports, expressed its support for the European Commission’s position. ACI claimed that the European Commission’s lowering the threshold of airport slot usage to 50% was “designed for the uncertainties of a poorly hit market and fragile recovery in aviation.”

A few airlines claim they have to fly high numbers of empty flights to maintain their airport slot use rights. In a January statement, Olivier Jankovec – Director General of ACI Europe – stated that there is no reason for this to be the case.

As airlines have stated, they reject the idea of “ghost flights”, which are completely empty. However, he said that the planes, rather than being empty, often carry very few passengers, and could be cancelled if not for the slot usage requirement.

Jankovec stated that “low load factors” were a fact of the pandemic. However, Jankovec noted that the preservation of essential air connectivity is vital for economic and social imperatives. It is difficult to balance commercial viability with the need for essential connectivity, and prevent anti-competitive effects.

Contradicting carbon reduction goals?

The environmental activists aren’t impressed. Greta Thunberg (sudden climate activist) wrote that Brussels Airlines had made 3000 unnecessary flights to preserve airport slots. This was citing an article in Belgian newspapers. “The EU surely is in a climate emergency mode…”

According to the Commission, the aviation sector accounts for approximately 14% of total transport carbon emissions. This makes it second after road transport.

The European Commission says on its own websiteThat “aviation” is “one the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and that it “is taking steps to reduce its emissions in Europe.” 

Georges Gilkinet, the Belgian minister of mobility, described the flight requirements as “environmental economic and social absurdity.” He appealed to the European Commission in March to have more freedom for airlines so that they can keep unbooked aircraft on the ground.

A spokesperson for the Commission said, however that the 50% current threshold was sufficient to reflect consumer demand and offer “much-needed continued air connectivity to citizens”.

Airlines seek exemptions

Boris Ogursky, a Lufthansa spokesperson, told CNBC Wednesday that he believes the slot rule of 80% for summer 2022 by the commission is appropriate. He noted that “air traffic is still not normalized.” The situation is still volatile due to new viruses and travel restrictions. Therefore, exemptions may be necessary.

Ogursky stated that more flexibility was needed to be able to fly next summer 2022 as well as the winter schedule 21/22. Without these flexiblenesses due to crises, airlines have to fly almost empty planes in order to guarantee their slots.

He said that the practice was not common in Europe. Other regions around the globe are adopting a pragmatic approach to this issue, such as temporarily suspending slots rules because of the pandemic. It is both good for the airline and the climate.

Jankovec of ACI highlighted the provision “Justified non-use of Slots”, that allows airlines to make a case to their slot coordinators. “This will allow them to efficiently use their airport slots for less then 50%,” he stated.

For Lufthansa, this provision isn’t very helpful, as it only allows airlines to exempt single flight connections, according to Ogursky: “This option cannot be applied to the majority of our weekly booked flights, resulting in the end to 18,000 unnecessary flights during the current winter schedule (Nov 21 – Mar 22),” he said.

Maaike Andrés, Brussels Airlines media relations manager clarified that these flights are not empty to fulfill the airport slot use threshold. Instead, the next winter season will see some flights being “insufficiently filled” to make the airline profitable.

Maaike stated that “these flights would ordinarily be cancelled by us in order to ensure we don’t operate unneeded flights from both an eco- and economic point of views.” But if we cancel all these flights it would be impossible to maintain our slots. As this law is European, the same applies to all European carriers.

While there are some exceptions made to normal rules on other continents, these flights can be avoided. In Europe, however, we still need more flexibility.