Parliament passes measures to prevent return of ‘ghost flights’

Twelve KLM passenger planes are grounded for the winter at Groningen Airport Eelde, the Netherlands, 09 November 2020. [EPA-EFE/SIESE VEENSTRA]

The European Parliament approved a revamp of the EU’s “use it or lose it” waiver for airport slot rules on Thursday (11 February), a measure first introduced in March 2020 to stop pandemic-hit airlines from flying almost empty planes to maintain access to ports.

Prior to the waiver, airlines had to ensure at least 80% of their flights departed as promised to keep access to take-off and landing airport slots in the following season.

The onset of COVID-19 saw airline passenger levels fall to a trickle, but airlines, worried about not meeting the 80% threshold, flew mostly unoccupied planes regardless – so-called ‘ghost flights’.

Industry and environmental activists decried the practice as both cost-intensive and environmentally harmful, leading EU lawmakers to offer a temporary waiver to the 80% rule until 27 March 2021, grounding ghost flights until now.

EU agrees to bust ‘ghost flights’ until 2021

The European Commission has agreed to extend a waiver of aircraft takeoff and landing slot rules for a further six months, in a boon to the struggling aviation industry.

While the move was broadly welcomed, some airlines, notably Ryanair and Wizz Air, decried the measure saying it distorts competition and allows dominant airlines to maintain slots at major airports that could be offered to better-performing low-cost carriers.

In an effort to balance these positions, EU lawmakers have sought a compromise: rather than return the threshold to 80%, they introduced a lower threshold of 50% for the 2021 summer season.

The revised threshold is in line with the industry’s passenger expectations, MEPs say.

“The slow return to a normal situation in air transport justifies the reintroduction, slowly, of competition in the allocation of airport slots. The European Parliament has been very careful not to destabilise a suffering sector: this measure begins a return to normal while preserving the historic rights of airlines,” said Dominique Riquet, a French centrist MEP who was the Parliament’s rapporteur on the proposal.

The European Commission will also able to adjust the percentage to between 30% and 70% depending on changing air traffic levels – a move that will allow the EU executive to react to the impact of new COVID-19 strains, should they threaten to again curtail travel between EU member states.

Industry group Airlines for Europe (A4E) gave the slots relief measure a lukewarm welcome, saying it will mitigate the economic impact of the crisis on European airlines. However, it expressed disappointment that the decision was not fully aligned with the recommendations of the Worldwide Airport Slot Board (WASB), an industry forum bringing together airlines and airports.

“Consistent global rules are essential for our industry, and several non-EU countries have either adopted the WASB recommendation in full, such as Turkey, or granted full slot waivers for the summer period, such as the United States,” said A4E.

The agreement “falls short of the full alignment we have advocated for and will create complexity for EU airlines,” A4E said in a statement which was endorsed by all its members with the exception of Ryanair.

Ciarán Cuffe, a Green MEP sitting on the Parliament’s transport committee, supported the legislation, arguing that it will help airlines and airports whilst reducing emissions. However, he questioned the airlines’ decision to fly virtually empty aircrafts at the start of the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has badly hit all forms of transport, but only aviation is given tax benefits in the form of an exemption on the fuel it uses. The fact that it is cheaper to fly ghost flights in the first place rather than cancel them, despite the damaging impact aviation emissions have on the environment, shows that we urgently need to redesign the transport system to save our climate,” he said.

“We need a level playing field when it comes to taxation in transport,” Cuffe added.

The European Parliament also voted to prolong the expiration date of a range of certificates, licences, periodic checks, and trainings required in the transport sector for a further 10 months.

The legislation was adopted to limit person-to-person contact – which are all but unavoidable when taking part in trainings or renewing a driving licence – during the pandemic.

'Ghost flights' issue returns to haunt airports and airlines

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

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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