European skies see near-empty planes as airlines ask EU to change rules on airport slots

With the Omicron turning away from air travel amid the rapid spread of the coronavirus variant, airlines are operating nearly empty flights across European skies to protect their time slots at important airports.

Airlines and environmental advocates are calling on the European Union to change its rules on airport slots to cut down on a practice that has raised concerns about pollution.

Slots for landing and departure at the largest airports are coveted, and airlines must guarantee a high percentage of flights to maintain their slots. So while airlines are seeing a pandemic-induced reduction in the number of people booking flights, many are opting to send nearly empty planes to keep their slots.

Before the pandemic, airlines had to use 80 per cent of their flights to keep their slots, but the European Union has already cut at least 50 per cent to curb the number of largely unfinished flights. But airlines experiencing Omicron’s impact are calling on the block to further change minimum usage rules.

Brussels Airlines said it would have to operate around 3,000 flights this winter to protect its slots if the EU does not make any changes. Similarly, German airline Lufthansa said it would have to send 18,000 “unnecessary” flights throughout the winter to protect its rights.

With the Omicron turning away from air travel amid the rapid spread of the coronavirus variant, airlines are operating nearly empty flights across European skies to protect their time slots at important airports. Above, a Brussels Airlines plane arrives at Brussels Airport in Belgium on May 6, 2020.
Thierry Monasse / Getty Images

“The EU is definitely in a climate emergency mode,” activist Greta Thunberg tweeted sarcastically this week, linking to a story of Brussels Airlines making unnecessary flights.

Even though the holiday has caused a huge increase in travellers, the rest of the winter period may slow down as Omicron continues to move around the world.

In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration has waived the same minimum slot-usage rules until March 26, citing the pandemic. Slots are limited to only a handful of US airports, including Kennedy and LaGuardia in New York and Reagan Washington National outside Washington.

Just last month, when there was still some hope that the pandemic might finally be over, the European Commission ratified the 50 percent rule, but said it would be raised to 64 percent at the end of March.

However, major airlines such as Lufthansa, Air France and KLM say they are counting on further flexibility, including further reducing limit levels on time slots.

“There is a need for greater flexibility in the short term, not only in the summer but also in the current winter schedule,” Lufthansa said in a statement. “Without the flexibility related to this crisis, airlines are forced to fly with almost empty planes to secure their slots.”

KLM agreed.

The Dutch company said, “So if the rest of the season is too disappointing, as an airline you could find yourself in a position to lose slots either because you cancel flights or fly with a half-empty plane. Both the situations are not desirable.”

This puts the EU in a bind. On the one hand, there is a need to ensure that airport slots are open to fair competition, allowing newcomers to compete for them if they are not used enough, and on the other, that this is as close as possible. Wants to stop polluting planes from flying.

EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valian acknowledged Omicron’s threat to the travel industry last month, but as of Thursday, she had not announced any new rules.

Belgian Transport Minister Georges Gilkinet wrote him a stinging letter urging his EU counterparts to join the initiative and increase the pressure.

According to the letter obtained by the Associated Press, “the high-level pollution created by these flights is in complete contrast to the EU climate objectives.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

lufthansa plane
Airlines and environmental advocates are calling on the European Union to change its rules on airport slots to cut down on a practice that has raised concerns about pollution. Above, a Lufthansa Airbus A320-271N takes off over the city as it approaches Humberto Delgado International Airport for landing in Lisbon, Portugal on November 11, 2021.
Horacio Villalobos / Corbis via Getty Images