Brussels has reacted to the coronavirus epidemic by suspending the EU’s use-it-or-lose it rules on airport landing slots, freeing airlines to halt “ghost flights” in which planes have been taking off without any passengers.
The aviation sector has been badly hit by the crisis after a collapse in customer demand and the requirement under EU rules that they use 80% of their allocated slots or risk losing them to a competitor.
Airlines from across Europe have been unnecessarily burning their way through thousands of tonnes of fuel flying near empty planes at a time when takings are down and are expected to plummet further.
The UK and its airlines remain tied to the EU rulebook until the end of 2020. Virgin Atlantic is among the carriers flying planes that are “almost empty” to keep takeoff and landing slots.
The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said she feared the situation for the aviation industry would only worsen in coming days and weeks.
“The coronavirus outbreak has a major impact on the European and international aviation industry. We see that the situation is deteriorating on a daily basis, and traffic is expected to decline further. And this is why the commission will put forward very rapidly legislation regarding the so-called airport slots,” she said.
“We want to make it easier for airlines to keep their airport slot, even if they do not operate flights in those slots, because of the declining traffic.”
Von der Leyen said it was a temporary measure aimed at helping the industry and environment. “It will relieve the pressure on the aviation industry and in particular on smaller airline companies, but it will also decrease emissions by avoiding the so called ghost flights. When airlines fly, almost empty planes, simply to keep that slot.”
Ciarán Cuffe, a Green MEP, said he was concerned that Von der Leyen had not given a timeline for the suspension and had instead called for swift agreement on her proposal by the EU council of ministers and the European parliament, which was not currently voting as a result of the epidemic.
Cuffe said: “It’s worrying. I would hope she can use emergency commission powers rather than wait for the European parliament to commence voting again.”
Several large airlines have been hit hard by the outbreak and were taking emergency measures to cut their costs.
The International Air Transport Association estimates the industry could lose $113bn (£87bn) in sales.
ACI Europe, which represents European airports, said its initial assessment was that passenger numbers between January and March would drop by 14%. “The Covid-19 epidemic is turning into a shock of unprecedented proportions for our industry,” the director general, Olivier Jankovec, said.
On Tuesday, British Airways suspended all flights to and from Italy, the European country in which the virus has had its biggest impact so far.