do planes fly empty to keep their slots during the epidemic?

do planes fly empty to keep their slots during the epidemic?

© Michael Probst
At Frankfurt Airport, Hesse (Germany), March 1.

An article in the British daily newspaper “The Times” denounced a European measure which would oblige, since the beginning of the epidemic, the airlines to fly their planes empty. The European Commission has announced plans to lift this provision on Tuesday.

Question asked by Lorenzo on 03/08/2020


Your question refers to an article from the British daily newspaper The Times, headline: “Airlines fly empty planes to keep their flight window during the coronavirus crisis”, widely quoted by other media (including French) and commented on social media.

According to the British newspaper, the companies of the country would be constrained to this little respectful environment practice because of a European rule (which still applies in the United Kingdom, within the framework of a post-Brexit agreement) which requires the use of at least 80% of their take-off slots allocated at airports if they do not want to risk losing them to the benefit of a competitor. Even when demand collapses.

Rather than nailing planes to the ground during the collapse of the tourism sector caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, companies would therefore be forced to fly very few planes: “A company told the Times that without a relaxation of the rule, it would operate 32 flights over the next three weeks with an average of only 40% of seats occupied. In total, it should fly with more than 5,200 empty seats during this period. ”

A situation that prompted the British Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, to demand a relaxation of the rule, as was the case during the SARS episode: “I am concerned that, in order to meet the 80/20 rule, companies will be forced to fly very underfilled and even empty planes to keep their slots. This scenario is not acceptable. It’s not in the interest of industry, passengers or the environment, so it should be avoided, ” he told Airport Coordination Limited (ACL), the agency responsible for managing the slots.

In the aftermath, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) also called for more flexible global rules. Several companies, including Air France, have lobbied the European Commission so that this 80/20 rule, originally created to allow other players to access saturated airports, is adapted to the epidemic In progress. As had already been the case after recent events such as the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States, the SARS epidemic in 2003 or the financial crisis of 2008.

Virgin Atlantic empty, Lufthansa nailed to the ground

Does this rule lead companies to fly empty planes? Contacted several times by CheckNews To find out if statistics existed on the number of flights that had run empty (or with low occupancy rates) since the start of the epidemic, IATA has not yet responded to our requests.

But different companies have communicated on the subject, and reacted differently to this point of settlement. So Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss, said this Tuesday than “Passenger demand for air travel has dropped dramatically due to the Covid-19, and in some cases we have been forced to fly almost empty planes so as not to lose our take-off slots.”

Some companies did, however, nail planes to the ground. This is the case for example with Lufthansa, who announced that 23 of its long-haul aircraft were “More active”, a reduction of around 25% in its short and medium-haul flights.

Contacted by CheckNews, Air France announces similar figures: “At European level, in March, we reduced our flight program by 25%. For Asia, as of January, we have suspended service to mainland China. Since Monday, we have also suspended all our flights between Paris and Hong Kong, and between Paris and Taipei. We have also reduced our flight frequencies to Paris-Seoul and Paris-Singapore ”, answers the press service of the company.

Does this mean that Air France took the risk of losing take-off slots at certain airports? On this precise point, the company remains vague: “We want this rule to be changed and we are lobbying the Commission so that this is the case. In the meantime, we continue to adapt our offer without having waited for the rule to be lifted or not. ”

The European Commission will lift this rule

In this case, therefore, all eyes quickly turned to the European Commission, to find out if the rule which requires companies to use at least 80% of their take-off slots, in order to compete, would be relaxed. As a first step, a moratorium on this rule was validated for the winter season, so that companies whose flights to China and Hong Kong did not take off could not be penalized under this rule. As confirmed by CheckNews French spokesperson for the European Commission.

Above all, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced this Tuesday that a legislative proposal will soon be put to the vote by the Council and the European Parliament, “Temporarily lift” this obligation. “This temporary measure will allow airlines to adjust their flight plan according to falling demand, following the spread of the virus. […] Given the urgency, the Commission will put a legislative proposal to the vote, and will ask the European Parliament and the European Council to adopt the measure in a codecision procedure “, said European Commissioner for Transport Adina-Ioana Vălean.



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