As airlines across Europe fly planes without passengers purely to hang on to take-off and landing slots, a UK parliamentary petition demanding an end to “ghost flights” has attracted more than 3,000 signatures.
Flying planes empty has long been used by airlines to preserve what is often their most valuable asset: permission to land at and take off from, high-demand airports such as London Heathrow.
In the industry, the practice is known as “keeping slots warm” – flying enough to adhere to the 80:20 rule that requires an airline to use a slot 80 per cent of the time. Any less, and the permit must be handed back.
Previous examples have included a British Mediterranean Airbus A320 shuttling between Heathrow and Cardiff after it ended a route to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and Qantas running a chartered regional jet for a daily round-trip between Heathrow and Manchester.
More than 5,800 people have signed the petition, which begins: “End ‘ghost’ flights: reform historic rights to landing slots.
“Airlines have been flying planes empty to retain their landing slots. These ‘ghost’ flights are a shocking waste of resources and a needless source of emissions.
“At a time of climate emergency, we need to drastically reduce our fossil fuel use, and in the context of our steadily dwindling carbon budget, it beggars belief that planes fly empty.
“UK regulation states that airlines must use their landing slots more than 80 per cent of the time in order to keep them. This was suspended at the outset of the pandemic but is now 50 per cent, with plans to return to 80 per cent by March 2022.
“We ask the government to reduce this to zero as a permanent measure.”
The petition was drafted by Anna Hughes, the director of Flight Free UK. She told The Independent: “If people choose to fly less for environmental reasons – as we are campaigning for them to do – we would expect the market to reflect that.
“If planes continue to fly empty because they are concerned about ‘use it or lose it’ rules, it doesn’t allow the market to adapt to shifting demand.”
Luxair is the latest airline to confirm that it is operating empty services between Luxembourg and Brussels to preserve its slot portfolio at Belgium’s main airport.
It follows the revelation by the Lufthansa Group that it will fly 18,000 empty sectors this winter. Carsten Spohr, the chief executive of the German firm that also owns Austrian Airlines, Swiss and Brussels Airlines, told a newspaper: “We will have to carry out 18,000 extra, unnecessary flights just to secure our take-off and landing rights.”
Last week, Ryanair called on the European Commission to force Lufthansa to sell seats on empty flights at low fares.
Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Europe’s biggest budget airline, said: “Lufthansa loves crying crocodile tears about the environment when doing everything possible to protect its slots.
“If Lufthansa doesn’t want to operate ‘ghost flights’ to protect its slots, then simply sell these seats at low fares, and help accelerate the recovery of short and long haul air travel to and from Europe.”
Ms Hughes said: “It’s not quite as simple as Michael O’Leary suggests, given that customers are not being kept away by unaffordable fares, but by travel restrictions brought about because of the pandemic.
“In the immediate term and in the long term, we want to see supply reflecting demand.”
Willie Walsh, the chief executive of the International Air Transport Association (Iata), told Nick Ferrari on LBC Radio: “It’s bad news for the environment when airlines are forced to fly to retain their slots.
“There are cases when airlines have been forced to operate flights either empty or with very few passengers, that could have been cancelled if the slots rules were more flexible. I think there’s good reason to look into this, and to stand back and evaluate it.”
Some airports, which have little control on slots – often their most valuable asset – are keen to see the 80:20 rule reintroduced as soon as possible. They say that the travelling public is being underserved while slots are idle, with new entrants kept out and prices kept artificially high.
Gatwick airport’s chief commercial officer, Jonathan Pollard, said: “The slot rules help maximise competition by keeping airfares low while increasing their choice of destinations and airline.
“Restoring the slot rules would be a clear signal that the UK government is getting fully behind the recovery of the UK aviation sector.”
Wizz Air, which wants to expand at Gatwick, has called for the old rules to be brought back. Marion Geoffroy, the managing director of Wizz Air UK, said: “Passengers are clearly concerned that airfares will increase if airport slot allocation rules remain the same.”
The UK government is currently consulting on the slot rules for summer 2022.