Commission denies existence of ghost flights amid carrier concerns

epaselect epa09571833 Lufthansa's A350-900 plane arrives from Munich to the Miami International Airport. EPA-EFE/CRISTOBAL HERRERA-ULASHKEVICH

Europe’s use it or lose it airport slot rule has not created issues for airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic, nor is there any evidence of carriers operating ghost flights because of the rule, a senior European Commission official said on Thursday.

“From our perspective, it is an unnecessary fuss. We actually have no evidence from any airline, including Lufthansa, on any amount of empty flights being operated,” the official told reporters.

“Travel has been relatively unrestricted. Net bookings are still quite stable,” the official said.

“For the current winter scheduling season, the Eurocontrol air traffic has been so far in the range of 73-78% of 2019 and the annual 2022 air traffic is forecast to be at 88% of 2019 levels,” Commission spokesperson Stefan De Keersmaecker told reporters.

The EU executive’s comments came a day after a spat between Lufthansa and Ryanair over the rule, which the Commission has relaxed to allow significant carriers to preserve airport access during the crisis despite a sharp drop in traffic.

Budget rivals, keen to expand into once-congested airports, have criticised the move.

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr told a newspaper last month that the airline still had to operate tens of thousands of additional flights in the winter to comply with the slot rule, resulting in surplus emissions.

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary on Wednesday hit out at Lufthansa, saying it was hampering rivals.

The EU says airlines will only have to use 50% of their slot rights for this winter season. The figure will go up to 64% for the summer season from March to October.

EU under pressure on 'ghost flights'

The European Union is under increasing pressure to further ease rules on airport take-off and landing slots to cut the number of “ghost flights” airlines are running to retain them.

Carriers say otherwise

While the Commission official says ghost flights are not a reality, carriers say otherwise. They say that the requirement to use 50% of slots leads to them operating half-full or empty flights.

Brussels’s Airlines, for example, said it would have to operate some 3,000 under-capacity flights by the end of March. Its parent company Lufthansa also warned it would have to run around 18,000 “pointless flights” during the winter months.

The phenomenon has already earned scathing criticism from environmental activist Greta Thunberg and several MEPs.

MEP Brando Benifei of the S&D Group branded ghost flights “an insult that frustrates the efforts of millions of people and young people who fight every day to protect our planet and against climate change”.

Despite the pressure, the Commission has refused to change the rules or adopt something more similar to the British model. Slot rules for the winter season have been suspended in the UK, removing the need for pointless and high-emission churning journeys.

The Brief – For the sake of credibility, the EU must exorcise ghost flights

“Kafkaesque” may be an overused term, but there are rare occasions when it is fitting. This Brief is about one of them.

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