There have been numerous #emptyflight tweets and posts recently with articles pointing to airlines operating empty or near empty flights, as traveler numbers fall drastically, and more travel restrictions are imposed. These so-called “ghost flights” are a result of a “Use it, or lose it” policy valid both in Europe and in a similar regulation in the USA, whereby airlines need to run 80% of their allocated flight slots at congested airports during a single season, to avoid losing them to a competitor in the next.
This minimum-use rule has forced airlines to carry out flights that, due to poor booking figures, would normally have been grounded or consolidated with another flight. Thus, planes are traveling almost empty, wasting vast amounts of kerosene, generating huge operating costs not offset by ticket sales, and causing unnecessary carbon emissions. Increasingly, airlines were recently promoting precaution measures on social media channels, with videos of how cabins are disinfected or explanations on how air circulation in aircraft works, in order to attract passengers, but at the latest by the time the U.S. put a ban on people from Schengen countries travelling to the U.S., something needed doing to prevent additional unnecessary costs in a crisis that IATA had already forecast at possibly costing the industry $113 billion – though this was on 05MAR20, thus before the U.S. travel bans and the restrictions imposed by other governments such as Israel, Kuwait, and Spain.
FAA waived 80/20 on 11MAR20
The FAA published a press release on 11MAR20, confirming that the 80%-use requirement would be waived until 31MAY20, for all U.S. and foreign airlines with flights affected by the corona virus crisis. “In doing so, the FAA expects that U.S. carriers will be accommodated with reciprocal relief by foreign authorities at airports in their countries and may determine not to grant a waiver to a foreign carrier whose home jurisdiction does not reciprocate.” The FAA stated they would be monitoring the situation, adjusting or extending it as necessary. The slot waiver applies to JFK, LGA, DCA, ORD, EWR, LAX, and SFO.
In Europe, on 13MAR20, the European Commission and Transport Commissioner, Adina Vălean, granted airlines a temporary waiver on the airport slots 80/20 rule until 30JUN20, valid from 01MAR20, and retroactively for flights to Hong Kong and China between 23JAN20 and 29FEB20.
European Commission follows suit on 13MAR20
Speaking for Airlines for Europe (A4E), Managing Director, Thomas Reynaert, said: “Europe’s airlines will feel the impact of COVID-19 for months to come, and while this is a good first step -- we expect an extension of the waiver for the full summer season will likely be necessary.” The waiver, along with further measures such as the deferment of new aviation taxes, categorizing COVID-19 as an extraordinary circumstance under regulation EU261 (air passenger rights), and national support measures are necessary to safeguard the survival and competitiveness of European airlines which have been particularly hard hit now by the U.S. restrictions on top of the China reductions the past 6 weeks. Thomas Reynaert points to these and requests an extension of the waiver beyond 30JUN20, to enable airlines to adapt flexibly to the current COVD-19 crisis. “For the sake of efficiency and predictability, and rather than seeking extensions on a rolling basis, a longer waiver would allow airlines to fly where the demand is and allow airports to adapt their services accordingly,” Reynaert added.
Global Air Travel Collapse – IATA says more needs doing
A sentiment echoed by IATA. Speaking in a live tv interview on Quest Means Business last week, the IATA Director General, Alexandre de Juniac expressed the prediction that low travel figures will continue through to September, and stated: “I don’t expect that the airlines will continue to operate empty flights only to maintain the slots. Economically, it is insane.”
An IATA press statement published on 13MAR20 pushed for extension: "The suspension of the slot use rules until June will allow airlines to begin putting in place measures to cope with the unprecedented fall in traffic, but it is a shorter period than airlines had requested. Airlines need the suspension to be extended to cover the whole season (to October) as other regulators worldwide have already agreed. The EC will therefore need to review the extension request by April 15 to allow airlines to plan their schedules.”
Airlines are in crisis
Rafael Schvartzman, IATA’s regional Vice-President for Europe, welcomed the waiver decision: “Airlines are in crisis. The collapse in demand is unprecedented and airlines are struggling to match capacity to the fast-changing situation. The commission’s decision to suspend slot use rules until June means that airlines can make these critical decisions immediately – without worrying about the impact on future availability of slots. This is much needed and most welcome. Airlines are implementing emergency measures under severe cashflow conditions. Along with relaxing slot rules, governments must also consider other forms of emergency relief.”
This is not the first time the 80/20 slot regulation has been lifted: it was temporarily suspended after the 11SEP01 terror attacks in the U.S., during the SARS virus in 2003, and partly during the 2008 financial crisis.
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