A Boeing 747-8 Lufthansa airplane takes off from the Airport Tegel in Berlin.

Britta Pedersen | AFP | Getty Images

Airlines in Europe this winter are flying passenger planes that are at occasions almost empty so as to maintain onto coveted take-off and touchdown spots at airports throughout a time of decrease journey demand.

Recent publicity round this utilization requirement has sparked controversy and anger at a time of rising worldwide concern over local weather change and the carbon emissions created by the aviation business.

Airport business representatives, in the meantime, are defending it, arguing for the necessity to preserve business viability, connectivity and competitiveness.

Airlines have expressed frustration over so-called “use it or lose it” slot guidelines established by the European Commission, the EU’s govt arm, which was suspended in March 2020 because the business was floored by the Covid-19 pandemic. It has since been introduced again incrementally to now require airways to use 50% of their allotted airport slots. That determine is scheduled to improve to 80% this summer season.

German service Lufthansa is amongst these airways, and is already reducing some 33,000 flights over the winter season because the omicron variant hobbles demand. Still, it has to make 18,000 flights over the winter season to meet its slot use requirement, its CEO stated. Its subsidiary Brussels Airlines is having to make 3,000 almost-empty flights by the tip of March.

“Due to the weak demand in January, we would have reduced significantly more flights,” Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr told a German newspaper in late December. “But we have to make 18,000 additional, unnecessary flights in winter just to secure our take-off-and-landing rights.”

He added: “While climate-friendly exemptions were found in almost all other parts of the world during the time of the pandemic, the EU does not allow this in the same way. That harms the climate and is exactly the opposite of what the EU Commission wants to achieve with its ‘Fit for 55’ program.”

A Pratt & Whitney PW1000G turbofan engine sits on the wing of an Airbus A320neo plane throughout a supply ceremony exterior the Airbus Group SE manufacturing unit in Hamburg, Germany, on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016.

Bloomberg | Krisztian Bocsi

The “Fit for 55” program was adopted by Commission in July of 2021 to meet the brand new EU objective of lowering greenhouse fuel emissions by a minimal of 55% by 2030.

In the face of criticism from airways and environmentalists, airport business representatives are pushing again, saying there may be “no reason” why the thousands of near-empty flights must be actuality.

Airports Council defends ‘very important air connectivity’

Airport business physique Airports Council International (ACI) expressed help for the European Commission’s place, arguing that its reducing of the airport slot use threshold to 50% was “designed to reflect the uncertainties of a badly hit market and fragile recovery for aviation.”

“A few airlines are claiming they are forced to run high volumes of empty flights in order to retain airport slot usage rights. There is absolutely no reason why this should be the reality,” Olivier Jankovec, Director General of ACI Europe, stated in an announcement in early January.

He rejected the notion of utterly empty “ghost flights” being flown, as have the airways themselves, who say that slightly than being utterly empty, the flights typically have only a few passengers and would in any other case be canceled if it weren’t for the slot use requirement.

“Low load factors have of course been a reality throughout the pandemic,” Jankovec stated, “but the retention of vital air connectivity for both economic and societal imperatives is well documented … Balancing commercial viability alongside the need to retain essential connectivity and protect against anti-competitive consequences is a delicate task.”

Contradicting carbon discount objectives?

Environmental activists are not impressed. “‘Brussels Airlines makes 3,000 unnecessary flights to maintain airport slots’,” Swedish local weather activist Greta Thunberg wrote on Twitter final week, citing a headline of a Belgian newspaper. “The EU surely is in a climate emergency mode…”

The aviation sector creates about 14% of the carbon emissions from general transport, making it the second-biggest supply of transport greenhouse fuel emissions after highway journey, in accordance to the fee, which additionally says that if world aviation have been a rustic, it will rank within the prime 10 emitters.

The European Commission says on its own website that “aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions” and that it “is taking action to reduce aviation emissions in Europe.” 

Belgian mobility minister Georges Gilkinet described the establishment’s flight necessities as “environmental, economic and social nonsense.” He wrote to the European Commission this month to demand extra flexibility for airways to keep insufficiently booked planes on the bottom.

But a Commission spokesman stated that the present 50% threshold is a ample discount that displays client demand and affords “much needed continued air connectivity to citizens.”

Airlines searching for exemptions

Lufthansa spokesman Boris Ogursky advised CNBC on Wednesday that he believed the fee’s slot rule of 80% use for summer season 2022 is “appropriate.” However, he famous, “air traffic has however still not normalized yet. Due to the development of new virus variants and the resulting travel restrictions, the situation remains volatile, so exemptions are still necessary.”

“Not only next summer 2022, but also now in the current winter flight schedule 21/22, more flexibility would be needed in a timely manner,” Ogursky stated. “Without these crisis-related flexibilities, airlines are forced to fly with almost empty planes just to secure their slots.”

He added that this observe just isn’t in place in areas exterior of Europe. “Other regions of the world are taking a more pragmatic approach here, for example by temporarily suspending slot rules due to the current pandemic situation. That benefits the climate and the airlines.”

ACI’s Jankovec highlighted a provision known as “Justified Non-Use of Slots”, which permits airways to current the case to their slot-coordinators, “allowing them to effectively use their allocated airport slots for less than 50% of the time,” he stated.

For Lufthansa, this provision is not very useful, because it solely permits airways to exempt single flight connections, in accordance to Ogursky: “This option cannot be applied to the majority of our weekly booked flights, resulting in the end to 18,000 unnecessary flights during the current winter schedule (Nov 21 – Mar 22),” he stated.

Brussels Airlines media relations supervisor Maaike Andries additionally clarified that the flights taking off to meet the airport slot use threshold are not empty; slightly, for the approaching winter season, some of the airline’s flights “are insufficiently filled to be profitable.”

“These flights would normally be cancelled by us to make sure we don’t operate unnecessary flights from both an ecological and an economical point of view,” Maaike added. “However if we would cancel all those flights, this would mean we pass under the minimum limit to keep our slots. The same issue is valid for all carriers in Europe, as this is a European law.”

“In other continents there have been made appropriate exceptions to the normal regulations, avoiding these unnecessary flights, but in Europe we are still in need of more flexibility.”

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