Coronavirus: EU to suspend ‘ghost flights’ rule for 4 months

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, during a press conference early this month. [Photo: European Commission]

The European Commission revealed on Friday (13 March) its plan to suspend for four months rules that have forced airlines to keep empty ‘ghost flights’ in the air, as a result of coronavirus cancellations. But carriers want their obligations put on ice until the end of October.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen followed through on her Tuesday pledge to put a moratorium on the so-called ‘use it or lose it rules’, so airlines can stop operating ‘ghost flights’ without fear of losing lucrative airport slots in 2021.

The current law stipulates that carriers have to use at least 80% of their allotted berths or they are returned to a common pot for the next calendar year. Today’s proposal aims to put that requirement on ice.

“This temporary measure will help both our aviation industry and the environment,” the Commission president said.

“The shock is temporary but we must all work together to make it as short and temporary as possible,” von der Leyen said during a press conference on the wider impact of the coronavirus impact.

Under the EU executive’s plan, the rules will be suspended until 30 June and the hiatus will be backdated to 1 March. It can also be extended if necessary.

The proposal also back dates the rules to 23 January 2020 from China-bound flights, as that was the first date when Beijing started to close air routes.

It is now up to the European Parliament and Council to sign off on the proposal before the rules can be fully suspended. Member state transport diplomats and ministers plan to hold a virtual meeting next week.

But this week’s MEP plenary session was first relocated from Strasbourg to Brussels and then stripped down completely and no votes were held. President David Sassoli even took the decision to self-isolate.

“I’m in constant contact with President Sassoli. I know he and the Parliament will do everything to make sure the decision-making process can keep on going,” von der Leyen told reporters.

The Parliament’s transport committee – headed by Green lawmaker Karima Delli – is now analysing the proposal and will announce in the next few days how it intends to approach the file.

French MEP Pascal Canfin told EURACTIV that it was a “fast and positive decision”, adding that he was pleased the Commission heeded the request of the French government and the Parliament.

Canfin’s Renew Europe group leader Dacian Ciolos said that he would push for the Parliament to hold an extraordinary plenary session – ahead of the next edition in the first week of April – to adopt a number of coronavirus-related initiatives.

Coronavirus: EU will suspend ‘ghost flight’ rules

The European Commission agreed on Tuesday (10 March) to suspend rules that oblige airlines to fly empty ‘ghost flights’, as the EU tries to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the economy.

Coronavirus is not the first crisis to prompt a rethink of the rules: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, SARS outbreak and 2008 financial crisis all forced a relaxation of 80/20 legislation.

Airlines will appreciate the retroactive nature of the Commission’s proposal, which includes the first four weeks of March. According to estimates, air traffic was down 5% compared with the same period in 2019.

But carriers had urged regulators to suspend the rules throughout the entirety of the summer period. Industry group Airlines for Europe (A4E) said in a statement the moratorium should last until the end of October.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said the measure is “the very minimum the industry needs”. Regional Vice-President for Europe Rafael Schvartzman said “given all the uncertainties, it is disappointing that the decision does not cover the full-season”.

According to the Commission, data from EURCONTROL predicts the fall in demand will last at least through June but that delegated acts could be used to extend the period if needed.

“Prolonging the proposed measure for the entire summer 2020 season (which ends on 24 October 2020) could be disproportionate to the clearly-defined objective should the situation indeed to return to normal in the intervening period,” the proposal reads.

Today’s clarification confirms that the EU will mirror the United States in taking the slots issue off the long list of airline worries. The FAA, the US aviation regulator, announced on Wednesday it would suspend the rules until 31 May and keep the situation under review.

A key demand in the FAA’s decision was that other regulators reciprocate its waiver. The agency warned that any failure to extend the same courtesy to US airlines could result in the 80/20 rules being reintroduced.

While airlines might be able to breathe a sigh of relief about planning for 2021, they are still scrambling to deal with US President Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to impose an entry-ban on travellers from the Schengen zone.

Embattled airlines left reeling by Trump travel ban

Europe’s airlines – already reeling from the coronavirus outbreak – are expected to be hard hit by US President Donald Trump’s 11 March ban on flights from the Schengen area, which has already been criticised by EU heads as unilateral and disproportionate.

On Friday afternoon, British Airways boss Alex Cruz said “to be frank, given the changing circumstances, we can no longer sustain our current level of employment and jobs will be lost – perhaps for a short period, perhaps longer term.”

“We are suspending routes and will be parking aircraft in a way that we have never had to before. Please do not underestimate the seriousness of this for our company,” he added in a video call to staff.

The Commission confirmed that it will endeavour to assess state aid notifications linked to coronavirus within 24 hours. It achieved that goal for the first case submitted to the competition services on Wednesday by Denmark.

Airlines are likely to call for financial assistance according to the head of the Commission’s financial stability directorate, Olivier Guersent, who said that it is “likely that all airlines will suffer a lot from this crisis so it can’t be ruled out that they need to be compensated”.

Italian flag-carrier Alitalia was already in difficulty before the crisis hit but the EU executive insists that the ongoing state aid investigation will be kept separate from the coronavirus issue.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

Subscribe to our newsletters