Airline to operate 18,000 empty flights to preserve landing sites

Airline Lufthansa says it will be forced to conduct 18,000 “ghost flights” this winter to maintain their take-off and landing slots.

In the coming weeks, the group expects to cancel some 33,000 flights due to a drop in air traffic following the spike in COVID-19 cases in the wake of Omicron. CEO Carsten Spohr told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that the reduced demand came from Germany, Switzerland and Austria, which have been hit particularly hard during this wave of the pandemic.

In the winter, the airline has only operated 60 percent of their pre-pandemic schedules, with half the number of passengers taking flights. Due to the slot rules at the airport, the company cannot simply reduce their flights accordingly, otherwise they risk losing their right to land in the future.

“In fact, due to reduced demand in January, we would have canceled significantly more flights,” Spohr said. “But in the winter we will have to operate 18,000 extra, unnecessary flights just to secure our take-off and landing rights.”

The company says it will be forced to operate flights with no or very few passengers to secure these slots under the European Union (EU) “use it or lose it” rule. The rules for winter 2021/2022 are that airlines must use a minimum of 50 percent of their slots, otherwise they risk losing them. In the earlier stages of the pandemic, this rule had been reduced to 0 percent to prevent no-demand flights, but has gradually increased as the world reopened. While still not back to pre-pandemic levels (80 percent), airlines are struggling to operate solely on passenger demand at 50 percent.

“Despite our insistence on greater flexibility at the time, the EU approved a 50% usage rule for any flight schedule/frequency held for the winter,” a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) told Metro. “This was clearly unrealistic in the EU this winter against the backdrop of the current crisis.”

This leaves companies like Lufthansa in a position to fly empty planes (and the huge amount of carbon emissions that come with it) to continue flying in the future when passenger demand picks up again. The policy is somewhat at odds with the EU’s commitment in the European Green Deal to cut transport emissions by 90 percent by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels), with the aviation industry playing a major role in that reduction.

The Belgian Transport Minister, Georges Gilkinet, has written to the European Commission asking them to drop the lock requirement to reduce unnecessary CO2 emissions.

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