MEPs agree to ground coronavirus ‘ghost flights’

Nearly 700 MEPs took part in the remote vote on 26 March, with President David Sassoli (pictured) on hand to oversee proceedings. [European Parliament]

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.

EU law obliges carriers to make use of at least 80% of their allotted take-off and landing slots within a calendar year or risk losing lucrative berths at airports for the next 12 months, in what is known as ‘use it or lose it’ rules.

Despite the coronavirus outbreak slashing air travel demand – thanks to a mixture of travel bans and social-distancing measures – airlines have continued to put empty ‘ghost flights’ in the sky as a result.

MEPs decided at a largely empty plenary session in Brussels yesterday to support a four-month-long waiver proposed by the European Commission in early March, with the caveat that it lasts until the end of October instead.

Airlines had urged the EU executive to grant a derogation for the entire summer period because of the likely disruption to services and industry group Airlines for Europe (A4E) welcomed the longer waiver suggested by MEPs and the European Council.

“This urgent measure puts an end to an ecologically and economically absurd situation. It will provide air companies with the necessary flexibility and certainty to gradually re-establish their service based on demand,” said Dominique Riquet (Renew Europe).

MEPs also agreed that the exemption should be back-dated for all flights to 1 March and to January for China-bound services, when the virus outbreak first started to disrupt routes.

The Parliament’s position mirrors the Council’s so there will be no need for the usual rounds of interinstitutional negotiations and the waiver can come into force through a fast-track procedure.

EU Council joins fight to bust coronavirus 'ghost flights'

The European Council agreed on Friday (20 March) to waive EU ‘use it or lose it’ rules that obligate airlines to fulfil at least 80% of their airport take-off and landing slots in a calendar year. The member states want the rules put on ice longer than the Commission suggested.

Corona cargo concerns

Passenger flights do not just carry jet-setters and their baggage though, as it is standard industry practice to transport cargo in the bellies of airliners as well. Most shipments are priority time-sensitive deliveries, such as medicine and perishable goods.

Europe’s main carriers operate 60 dedicated freighters between them but that number is dwarfed by the 1,600 passenger planes that also haul up to five million tonnes of mostly high-value cargo every year.

Trade volumes are small compared to shipping – just 2.6% of Europe’s total is shifted by aircraft – but in terms of sheer value aviation is a big player: 30% of exports and 21% of imports come in and out by plane.

The virus outbreak has not affected cargo-only flights to the same extent as passenger services, which are down in Europe by as much as 90%. In fact, freight is operating at an equivalent or even increased capacity compared with the same period in 2019.

But cargo operators cannot compensate for the loss of passenger flights and shippers, including those in the medical sector, are reporting difficulties fulfilling deliveries and increased costs, according to the Commission.

On Thursday, the EU executive published its latest instalment of practical guidelines for national governments to follow, issuing guidance on how to maintain air cargo services during the outbreak.

The text urges authorities to grant freight permits in good time and to issue temporary permissions so that airlines can provide cargo services using passenger planes, which for some carriers is the only revenue stream left.

Late-night curfews should also be removed or only applied flexibly, according to the Commission, and airport personnel should be properly qualified to handle freight.

Germany’s flag carrier, Lufthansa, flew 30 tonnes of medical equipment in the cabin of its Airbus A330s from China on 25 March but there are technical challenges associated with stowing packages and crates securely in seats meant to accommodate humans.

Industry group A4E welcomed the Commission’s clarification on cargo services but also urged member states to exempt freight services from travel bans and not to restrict the movement of aviation personnel that do not show symptoms of the virus. 

Keep on trucking: EU deploys ‘green lanes’ to unclog freight

The European Commission issued instructions on how to unclog bottleneck border crossings on Monday (23 March), with new ‘green lanes’ aiming to keep freight moving during the coronavirus outbreak. Hauliers were initially sceptical though.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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