EU changes rules to stop Covid-19 ‘ghost flights’

Planes will no longer be forced to fly empty during the Covid-19 crisis, as the EU has now suspended rules that previously required airlines to “use or lose” their airport slots even if they had no passengers.

31 March 2020
The EU announced the change on Monday March 30
By Connexion journalist

The EU announced the change on Monday March 30. The temporary measure will last until October 24, and “could be extended” by the EU Commission “if the situation continues”, the EU Council said.

Previously, the rules stated that airlines were obliged to use at least 80% of their takeoff and landing airport slots in order to keep their schedules for the next year.

As demand for flights plummeted due to the Covid-19 crisis, this rule was said to be forcing airlines to waste thousands of litres of fuel to fly “ghost planes” with no passengers, simply to maintain their slots.

The Croatian minister for transport, Oleg Butkovic, whose country currently has the presidency of the EU Council of the Union, said: “[This measure] will continue to help ease the heavy economic burden that airlines are suffering, and will bring them a certain security during the summer season.”

The rule change was published in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJ) today (Tuesday March 31).

France had been among the countries to call on the EU to make the change.

Two weeks ago, economy minister Bruno Le Maire said: “On the subject of airline travel, I have asked the European commissioner Paolo Gentiloni to request that airline companies may be able to keep their slots without having to fly their empty planes across the sky.”

“It is totally absurd that this regulation is being applied in the current circumstances.”

British transport minister Grant Shapps had also called on the independent coordinator of airline slots, Airport Coordination Ltd (ACL), to relax the rules during the outbreak.

Read more: France joins calls to stop ‘ghost’ Covid-19 flights

This is not the first time the slot rules have been suspended during times of crisis; it also happened after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; during the SARS epidemic of 2003; and after the financial crisis of 2008-2009.

easyjet planes on the ground due to coronavirus pandemic

(Photo: eddie mitchell / @brightonsnapper / Twitter)

EasyJet, Ryanair and Transavia grounded

Airlines have already begun to respond to the changes, continued international flight restrictions, and the significant drop in demand.

As of yesterday (Monday March 30), low-cost airline Ryanair said it would be extending its “limited schedule” operations, and said that “90% of Ryanair’s aircraft are grounded for the coming weeks”, until at least Thursday April 9. 

It said: “We are working with EU governments to try to keep some minimum flight links open for emergency reasons, even though the passenger loads on these flights will be very low.”

Transavia has said it has “drastically reduced its flight schedule” and confirmed that Flights operated by Transavia France with the flight number starting with TO: All flights from Saturday 21 March up to and including Sunday 3 May are cancelled.”

It stated: “All customers of the cancelled flights will receive a voucher.”

Budget airline EasyJet has also announced that it has grounded its entire fleet - notwithstanding continued rescue flight operations - and has waived its fees for flight changes to existing bookings.

In a statement issued on Sunday March 29, it said: "As a result of the unprecedented travel restrictions imposed by governments in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the implementation of national lockdowns across many European countries, EasyJet has, today, fully grounded its entire fleet of aircraft."

It added: "Over recent days EasyJet has been helping to repatriate customers, having operated more than 650 rescue flights to date, returning home more than 45,000 customers.

“The last of these rescue flights were operated on Sunday March 29. We will continue to work with government bodies to operate additional rescue flights as requested.”

On the subject of commercial air travel, it said: “At this stage there can be no certainty of the date for restarting commercial flights. We will continuously evaluate the situation based on regulations and demand, and will update the market when we have a view."

In recent days, the British low-cost airline has offered the public “millions of seats” for “just €39.60” each for flights up to February 28, 2021, “giving you something to look forward to”, it said. 

To take advantage of the offer, customers must book online on the EasyJet website before midnight Tuesday March 31.

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