Airlines, shocked by Omicron, push EU to relax airport slot rules

Airlines disagree with the European Union over rules that require them to use their take-off and landing slots at airports, even when they don’t have enough passengers to justify flights. Airlines are forced to fly thousands of nearly empty planes – sometimes called “ghost flights” – as travel plummets due to Omicron infections.

In recent weeks, several European carriers, including Lufthansa and Brussels Airlines, have said they have to cancel thousands of flights because they are not booked enough to be profitable. But they are constrained by EU rules that force them to use their precious airport slots or risk losing them, potentially to the benefit of competing carriers.

The rules, which normally require airlines to use at least 80% of their allocated slots at airports, were lifted in early 2020 as the coronavirus hit the continent. But since then the bloc has started to reintegrate them, and last month the European Commission set the threshold at 50% for the winter travel season.

“Now, the slot maintenance threshold is raised again and this means that if we cancel these 3,000 flights, we would lose our slots at several airports,” Maaike Andries, spokesperson for Brussels Airlines, said on Thursday. “This is something every airline should avoid of course.”

Pre-assigned take-off and landing slots are common in crowded European airports and are used to allocate space and avoid chaos between different airlines.

In the United States, only three airports maintain slots – Kennedy and La Guardia in New York and Ronald Reagan in Washington – and the Federal Aviation Administration cut them at the start of the pandemic and recently extended them until March of this year. .

Announcing her decision to set the restriction at 50% of capacity on December 15, Adina Valean, the EU transport commissioner, acknowledged concerns over the Omicron variant, but said the move was aimed at helping airlines resume their capacities by the summer.

But as more people canceled vacation trips amid the outbreak of the virus, airlines were left with no choice but to fly nearly empty planes or risk losing valuable flight slots. airport.

Carsten Spohr, chief executive of the Lufthansa Group, said his company had had to cancel 33,000 flights, about 10% of those planned for the winter season. Other flights took off, but were far from full. In addition to Lufthansa, the company owns Eurowings and Austrian, Brussels and Swiss airlines.

“We have to make 18,000 unnecessary extra flights just to secure our departure and landing rights,” Spohr told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung two weeks ago.

“It’s damaging for the climate,” he said, “and it’s the exact opposite of what the European Commission hopes to achieve” in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Georges Gilkinet, the Belgian Minister of Transport, said on Wednesday that he had sent a letter to the European Commission asking for further relaxation of the regulations which he called “economic, ecological and social absurdity”.

“I have asked the Commission to review these unsuitable rules in times of Covid,” Mr Gilkinet said of Twitter.

This week, the commission said it was upholding its decision to leave slot usage at 50% during the winter season, in the interest of balancing the needs of airport operators, passengers and airlines.

This position was supported by a group representing airports.

“The pandemic has hit us all hard. Balancing commercial viability with the need to maintain essential connectivity and protect against anti-competitive consequences is a delicate task, ”said Olivier Jankovec, director of Airports Council International Europe. “We think the European Commission is right. “



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