Airlines in Europe say they fly near-empty planes as omicron derailleurs travel because EU rules mean they can’t stop

BRUSSELS – As the omicron variant derails travel plans around the world, airlines say strict European Union regulations force them to operate nearly empty flights – unnecessary and environmentally harmful flights whose they claim to need to save their long-term take-off and landing slots at European airports.

Airlines must use a certain percentage of their designated slots at airports to keep them. But weak demand during the pandemic has led airlines to fly near empty flights, often called phantom flights, to meet demands. Lufthansa, a major German airline, said it canceled 33,000 trips, or 10% of its winter flights, due to low demand, but still expects to have to operate 18,000 “misbooked” flights to secure its slots .

The EU waived these requirements at the start of the pandemic, but partially reinstated them last year. Before the pandemic, airlines had to use 80% of their take-off and landing slots to keep them. Last year the EU said airlines must use at least 50% and allowed them to request exceptions if they were to drop below that threshold.

But airlines and environmental groups say it’s not enough and the exemption rules are unclear. They want the EU to remove all thresholds, at least during the pandemic. The requirement is expected to increase to 64% in the spring.

The US Federal Aviation Administration has minimum slot requirements at three airports – New York’s Kennedy and LaGuardia airports and Washington’s Reagan National Airport – and has waived those requirements until March 2022 for flights international.

“We would prefer to cancel them, and they should also be avoided for the good of the environment,” Maaike Andries, spokeswoman for Brussels Airlines, which is owned by Lufthansa, told the Brussels Times, adding that she expects that the airline must cancel 3,000 flights by March.

EU officials have defended their policies and said they must strike a balance between protecting consumers and reviving a stunted airline industry. If airlines could cancel flights with impunity, for example, they would be able to frequently rebook passengers on flights on different days to maximize profits.

A senior European Commission official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak publicly on the matter, told reporters last week that he had no evidence that airlines, including Lufthansa , need to perform “ghost flights” during the omicron variant and provided statistics showing that air travel in the early days of January is about 77% of pre-pandemic times and is expected to increase.

During the pandemic, the EU provided the airline industry with tens of billions of dollars in bailouts.

“As required, the protection of historic slots must be balanced with the need to ensure that airport capacity is used in a pro-competitive way for the benefit of all consumers,” said EU spokesman Daniel Ferrie. , to journalists.

Magdalena Heuwieser, spokesperson for Stay Grounded, a network of more than 170 organizations advocating for alternatives to air travel, argued that the EU should encourage fewer flights to take off, not create rules that incentivize airlines to fly more planes.

She said it could also encourage airlines to cut airfares to get more people on board – something environmental groups have long championed, saying planes have a large carbon footprint and should only be used if people are on board. trains or other modes of transport are not feasible.

“In times of climate crisis, you cannot afford unnecessary flights,” Heuwieser said.

Ryanair – a major low-cost airline based in Europe – said its low-cost air fares have spared them some of the challenges other airlines have faced during the pandemic, arguing it is not necessary to carry out “ghost flights” and called on Lufthansa to lower its prices to board more people.

“The solution to Lufthansa’s ‘ghost flight’ problem is simple: just sell those seats to consumers,” Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said in a statement last week. “If Lufthansa really needs to operate these flights, it should be forced to sell these seats to the public at low prices.”

Quentin Ariès of the Washington Post contributed to this report.

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