‘Ghost flights’ issue returns to haunt airports and airlines

Air travel plummeted in March due to coronavirus lockdown measures. [Photo: Shutterstock]

Airport and airline operators are locked in a spat about whether a rules waiver granted by the EU back in March should be extended into 2021, although a decision is not due until mid-September.

Airlines were quick to push for a suspension of ‘use it or lose it’ rules governing airport takeoff and landing slots, which had forced them to put largely empty planes in the sky in order to protect their 2021 business.

There was an immediate public and industry backlash against the phenomenon known as ‘ghost flights’, which environmental groups branded an “unnecessary fuel-burning disaster”.

European lawmakers, the Council and Commission obliged in late March, putting the requirements on ice until late October. The EU executive will keep the decision under review, as there is a possibility to extend it further.

That option has already sparked a spat between international airlines group IATA and airports body ACI, the former of which wants the waiver to be renewed and last through the winter months into 2021. 

IATA said on 16 June that many carriers are only just beginning to restart their operations and that a quick decision on the slots issue would give them increased certainty about the rest of the year.

“Governments need to grant that by no later than the end of July to provide at least that certainty for this beleaguered and battered industry,” said director general Alexandre de Juniac.

ACI objects, insisting it is too early to make a decision.

“There is a danger here that airlines use the airport slot allocation system and the flexibility afforded by the waivers to ensure airport slots cannot be reallocated and keep competition at bay,” ACI added.

Oliver Jankovec, director general at ACI Europe, said the group was urging the Commission “to follow a data-driven and evidence-based approach to assess whether extending the waiver beyond the end of October will be the most appropriate measure to support the restoration of air connectivity”.

The Commission had initially proposed a waiver until 30 June, which the Parliament and Council then extended until October, after the virus outbreak’s stark impact on travel plans became more clear-cut.

According to its work schedule, the EU executive must present a report to both EU institutions on air traffic levels by 15 September and propose the next course of action based on its findings.

The Commission is reportedly aware of the disagreement between airport and airline operators but believes it is too early to come to any conclusions as of yet.

MEPs agree to ground coronavirus ‘ghost flights’

European Parliament lawmakers agreed on Thursday evening (26 March) to put problematic aviation rules on ice until October, as airlines struggle to cope with the impact of the coronavirus on their business.

At the beginning of Europe’s virus outbreak, airlines made the slots waiver a priority along with asking governments to suspend any plans to impose new taxes or charges, citing the sector’s difficult financial circumstances.

Air France-KLM CEO Benjamin Smith said in early March that “we are asking governments to suspend the introduction of new flight taxes. New taxes put extra pressure on us, for example in France and the Netherlands.” 

“All these taxes are imposed in the name of sustainability but the money is not being earmarked for that. It’s not truthful, it’s deceptive,” he added.

Kerosene is currently exempted in practice from taxation, although work is still ongoing at the Commission as well as between member states to work out the feasibility of introducing a levy, which could generate revenues of up to €27 billion at the EU level.

Taxing jet-fuel still on the radar, despite aviation’s virus woes

Kerosene’s plum position as one of the few fuels exempt from taxation is still under severe scrutiny, as momentum builds behind the idea of setting up multilateral agreements between willing countries.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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