Flight company Lufthansa say they will be forced to carry out 18,000 "ghost flights" this winter in order to keep their take-off and landing slots.
In the coming weeks, the group expects to cancel some 33,000 flights due to a fall in air travel caused by the spike in COVID-19 cases in the wake of Omicron. CEO Carsten Spohr told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that the reduced demand was coming from Germany, Switzerland and Austria, who have been hit especially hard during this wave of the pandemic.
Going into winter, the airline has been running just 60 percent of their pre-pandemic schedules, with half the number of passengers taking flights. Due to airport slot rules, the company cannot simply reduce their flights accordingly, or they will risk losing their right to land in the future.
"Because of the reduced demand in January, we even would have canceled considerably more flights," Spohr said. "But in winter we will have to carry out 18,000 extra, unnecessary flights, just to secure our takeoff and landing rights."
The company say they will be forced to operate flights with no or very few passengers in order to secure these slots under the European Union (EU)'s "use it or lose it" rule. The rules for Winter 2021/2022 are that airlines must use at least 50 percent of their slots or they risk losing them. In the earlier stages of the pandemic, this rule had been reduced to 0 percent in order to stop flights taking place with zero demand, but this has been gradually increased as the world opened up again. While still not back to pre-pandemic levels (80 percent), airlines are struggling to operate at 50 percent on passenger demand alone.
"Despite our urgings for more flexibility at the time, the EU approved a 50 percent-use rule for every flight schedule/frequency held for the winter," a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) told Metro. "This has clearly been unrealistic in the EU this winter against the backdrop of the current crisis."
This leaves companies like Lufthansa in the position of flying empty airplanes (and releasing the tremendous amount of carbon emissions that involves) in order to keep flying in the future when passenger demand is back up. The policy is somewhat at odds with the EU's commitment in the European Green Deal to reduce transport emissions by 90 percent by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels), with the aviation industry set to play a large part in that reduction.
Belgium’s transport minister, Georges Gilkinet, has written to the European Commission to ask them to drop the slot requirement in order to reduce unnecessary carbon emissions.