“Empty flights” operated by some airlines: four questions on the controversy

An “ecological absurdity for some, an” unrealistic rule “for others … The” ghost flights “operated by the airlines are widely criticized by the politicians and the companies themselves which point to the responsibility of the European Commission.

The pandemic has indeed brought to light certain regulations concerning take-off and landing slots which force planes to fly with sometimes zero passengers to Knowing that the plane is transmitting on a path of 241 km round trip, between 111 and 241 kg of CO2 per passenger, it is already the most polluting means of transport in the world, according to The World Organization for the Protection of the Environment . So, ecologically, it is like an extravaganza to make these machines travel empty.

Why the s planes fly empty?

It is since the start of the pandemic and the cancellation of many flights with border closures, that these flights have started to be revealed. Normally, European rules provide that companies must use at least 66% of take-off and landing slots (or “slots” in English) allocated to them at airports, otherwise they lose their rights the following season. These rules have been rendered inapplicable by the collapse in demand for tickets and the industry’s historic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

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After the suspension of the regulation in March 1449 to prevent companies from operating empty flights in order to keep their slots, Brussels had recommended a gradual return to normal following the partial recovery in traffic.

Since 28 March 2021, companies are required to use 50% of their take-off slots and of landing to be able to keep them, but this level is considered excessive by the air transport sector, still recovering, in particular after the appearance of the Omicron variant which caused a further drop in reservations this winter.

How are the airlines reacting?

On the airline side, we underline the absurdity of this rule forcing them to carry out these ghost flights. Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr warned December that he would be forced to operate “18 unnecessary flights “during the winter” only to retain take-off and landing rights “, in an interview daily FAZ .

“Despite our urgent requests for more flexibility, the EU has approved a rule for using 40% (…) clearly unrealistic, “added a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents the vast majority of companies.

Air France, “which has never operated an empty flight to keep slots and does not plan to do so” said “it is” in favor of a reassessment of these rules so that companies continue to operate flights only when demand justifies it “.

European airports, unlike IATA, believe that companies “have no reason to fly empty planes in Europe to keep their airport slots”, said asserted last week the association. They can benefit from exemptions and “are very well protected against the current uncertainties”, in particular the wave of the Omicron variant, underlined ACI Europe in a press release released Thursday.

And the political leaders?

Beyond the actors of the sector, the situation did not take long to react on the side of politicians. Like the French ecologist MEP Karima Delli who particularly denounced the 15 000 flights operated by Lufthansa because of the “use it or lose it” rule. “This situation is ecological as well as economic absurdity. As chair of the Transport Committee, I appealed to the European Commission to put an end to this!”, She announced on Twitter on January 4. “Thousands of empty flights which destroy the planet with the complicity of the European Union”, for his part criticized the French deputy François Ruffin .

The Belgian Minister for Mobility, Georges Gilkinet, for his part wrote to the Commissioner for Transport, Adina Valean, to put an end to this economic and environmental aberration denounced by the aviation sector.

Why is Brussels sticking to its position?

Despite the pressure exerted on the European Commission to relax the rules on the allocation of airport slots for airlines in the EU, on 11 December, Brussels announced that this threshold would be further increased to 64% for the next summer season, from 28 March to 29 October, angering the companies aerial.

Brussels explains its firmness by the need for competition. A Commission spokesperson invoked “the need to ensure that airport capacity is used competitively for the benefit of all consumers”.

Faced with the pressure raised by the controversy, the European Commission responds in the columns of Parisian that she “will continue to consult with slot coordinators to ensure that EU slot relaxation rules provide adequate protection for airlines, protect the environment and ensure efficient use of airport capacity “and encourage” airlines to keep in touch with its services and slot coordinators by providing evidence demonstrating for which routes and what justified exceptions of non-use should be granted. ”



Cécile Maisonneuve is Senior Fellow at the Montaigne Institute and advisor to the energy-climate center of IFRI.


by Marylin Maeso


Eric Chol


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