Europe ‘Ghost Flight’ Debate Intensifies

Major carriers say they are being forced to fly low load-factor flights to maintain airport slots. 

Credit: Thomas Lohnes / Getty Images

The surge in COVID-19 cases in Europe, and the subsequent drop in demand, have renewed the slot-relief debate as some carriers operate extremely low load-factor “ghost flights” to retain take-off and landing slots.

The omicron variant and rocketing case numbers in many European countries have led to a raft of flight cancellations from European carriers’ schedules, throwing airline network recovery plans off course.  

Eurocontrol said Jan. 12 that there had been 3,000 fewer flights for the previous two days compared to the same two days in the prior week.  

On Jan. 7, Eurocontrol said it had recorded 19,506 flights per day in its network so far this year, 77% of 2019 levels and below its baseline recovery estimate. The network manager had three recovery scenarios going into 2022, the least optimistic of which foresaw traffic at 79% of 2019 levels at the start of the year, with the most optimistic estimating a recovery to 87% of 2019 levels.  

In December, airlines and airports had welcomed a decision by the European Commission to set a minimum slot usage threshold of 64% for the summer 2022 season, an increase on the current 50% and a step closer to the usual 80% minimum.  

The 80/20 rule usually in place requires that carriers use slots at crowded slot-controlled airports at least 80% of the time to avoid losing them in the next equivalent season, but the rule has been relaxed because of the pandemic.

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As omicron threatens the air traffic recovery, pressure is growing for more flexibility. Belgium transport minister Georges Gilkinet has written to the EC asking for further adjustments to slot rules during the pandemic. In a post on Twitter, the minister said requiring airlines to operate largely empty flights to keep take-off and landing rights is “incomprehensible and meaningless from an economic, ecological and social point of view.”  

The EC said measures already taken, including an exemption that can be granted related to “justified” non-utilization of slots, are enough to ensure airlines can keep their historic slots without resorting to flying empty aircraft.  

“The objective of the EU slot relief is precisely to ensure that airlines can retain their historic slots without having to fly empty flights when health restrictions prevent passengers from traveling,” said an EC spokesperson. “At the same time, airlines must make an effort to use the airport capacity pro-competitively for the benefit of consumers and connectivity. If an airline is temporarily unable to use its slots, it should return such slots for ad hoc allocation to other airlines. The EU slot relief [rule] has proven successful in providing relief that is both economically and environmentally sound.”  

Ryanair Group CEO Michael O’Leary weighed in, saying that if major European carriers such as Lufthansa need “to operate these flights [solely to prevent the release of these slots to competitor airlines], then they should be required to sell these seats to the public at low fares. Slots are the way [Lufthansa] blocks competition and limits choice at big hub airports like Frankfurt (FRA), Brussels Zaventem (BRU) and Vienna (VIE), among others.”

He added: “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.”  

Responding to Ryanair’s statement, Lufthansa said: “Lufthansa has never spoken of ghost flights. Here Ryanair and Michael O'Leary are obviously misinformed. We are concerned with a European harmonization of the exemptions for the use of take-off and landing rights in the current winter flight schedule. This could avoid many thousands of unnecessary flights in Europe.”