Nearly empty flights crisscross Europe to secure landing slots

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BRUSSELS (AP) – European skies are filling with nearly empty polluting planes with little other purpose than to protect valuable airline slots at some of the world’s most important airports.

The highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 has deterred many people from flying, and because of this, transporting people and goods from point A to point B has become an afterthought for thousands of flights . He’s created some bizarre bedfellows, with environmentalists and major airlines united to curb empty or nearly empty flights by lobbying the European Union – a promised global leader in the fight against climate change – to change the rules on airport slots.

“The EU is surely in climate emergency mode,” activist Greta Thunberg tweeted sarcastically this week, in connection with a story about Brussels Airlines making unnecessary flights.

The company said if the EU does not act, it will have to make some 3,000 trips this winter, mainly to protect its rights to the network.


German giant Lufthansa said it would have to make an additional 18,000 “unnecessary” flights during the winter to maintain landing slots. Even though the holidays have seen a surge in passenger numbers – marked by thousands of flight cancellations that have left travelers stranded – the remainder of the winter spell could be slow as the omicron rises around the world.

Landing and departure slots for popular routes at larger airports are an extremely valuable commodity in the industry, and to keep them, airlines must guarantee a high percentage of flights. This is why loss-making flights must be maintained so that companies retain their slots.

It was an accepted practice despite pollution concerns, but the pandemic flight crisis has called that into question. Normally, airlines had to use 80% of their slots to preserve their rights, but the EU has reduced that figure to 50% to ensure that fewer or nearly empty planes fly the skies.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration waived similar rules for minimum slot use until March 26, citing the pandemic. Time slots are limited at a handful of US airports, including Kennedy and LaGuardia in New York and Reagan Washington National outside of Washington.

Just last month, when there were still some hopes that the pandemic would finally subside, the European Commission upheld the 50% rule but said it would be raised to 64% at the end of March.

However, large airlines such as Lufthansa, Air France and KLM say they are counting on greater flexibility, in particular by further reducing the threshold level on time slots.

“More short-term flexibility is needed, not only in summer but also in the current winter schedule,” said a statement from Lufthansa. “Without this crisis-related flexibility, airlines are forced to fly with nearly empty planes just to secure their slots. “

KLM accepted.

“So if the rest of the season is very disappointing, as an airline you can find yourself in the situation of losing slots because you cancel flights or fly with planes that are half empty. Both situations are not desirable, ”the Dutch company said.

This puts the EU in a bind. On the one hand, it must ensure that airport slots are open to fair competition, allowing newcomers to compete for them if they are not sufficiently used, and on the other hand, it wants to prevent them as much as possible. polluting planes to fly.

EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean last month acknowledged omicron’s threat to the travel industry, but on Thursday she did not announce any new regulations.

Belgian Transport Minister Georges Gilkinet wrote him a scathing letter and pressured his European counterparts to join the initiative and step up the pressure.

“The high level pollution created by these flights goes completely against the EU’s climate objectives,” according to the letter obtained by the Associated Press.

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AP Business Writer David McHugh contributed from Frankfurt, Germany.


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