Airlines have warned they will be forced to run half-empty and polluting “ghost flights” because of new UK rules compelling carriers to fly more regularly to retain their lucrative take-off and landing slots at busy airports.
The Department of Transportation said on Monday that airlines would have to hand back airport slots if they were not used 70 per cent of the time from March 27, up from the current threshold of 50 per cent.
Airlines are allocated specific time slots at busy airports to help ensure that runways are used as efficiently as possible.
These landing rights are some of the airlines’ most valuable assets, and can be traded for tens of millions of pounds.
In normal times the “use it or lose it” threshold is set at 80 per cent, but the rules were waived at the start of the pandemic to stop carriers from flying empty planes just to maintain their landing rights, a phenomenon known as ghost flights ”.
“As demand for flights returns, it’s right we are gradually moving back to previous rules while making sure we continue to provide the sector with the support it needs,” said Robert Courts, aviation minister.
But Willie Walsh, director general of the airline industry body Iata, criticized the decision and said the UK had proposed the highest slot usage threshold in the world.
“It is inconceivable that international demand will average 70 per cent this summer. The government is therefore condemning airlines to operate thousands of low capacity flights which is environmentally stupid, ”he said.
His position was supported by Luis Gallego, chief executive of British Airways owner International Airlines Group.
“In the current circumstances, this decision would force airlines to operate flights with low load factors which will generate unnecessary CO2 emissions,” Gallego said.
DfT insisted its new rules would help reduce ghost flights, while ensuring that slots were used where there is demand.
The changes unveiled on Monday also included a waiver to allow airlines additional flexibility if destinations are hit by new travel restrictions.
In setting 70 per cent threshold, the UK has tried to find a middle ground between competing aviation interests.
Many low-cost carriers are hoping to expand and would like to scoop up slots, while network airlines, whose long-haul routes have been slower to recover, have pushed to retain their landing rights.
Stewart Wingate, chief executive of London’s Gatwick airport, welcomed the changes.
The issue is particularly acute for the UK’s second busiest airport, as many airlines have consolidated their operations to Heathrow during the crisis while still holding on to their old slots at Gatwick.
“The government’s sensible decision to return discipline to the UK’s airport slot regulations for the summer season is very welcome and means consumers will once again benefit from a competitive aviation market,” he said.
Marion Geoffroy, managing director of low-cost carrier Wizz Air UK, said the changes were “a step in the right direction”.
The typically arcane and highly technical issue of airport slots was thrust into the spotlight earlier this month after German flag carrier Lufthansa said it would run 18,000 half-empty flights to comply with the EU’s slot rules.
Brussels, like the UK, set a usage threshold of 50 per cent on slots this winter, and has said this will rise to 64 per cent in the summer.
The reports attracted criticism from European politicians and climate activist Greta Thunberg.
The changes come as the travel industry reported rising bookings for international trips this summer.
This week, ministers are expected to announce an end to all travel testing for vaccinated passengers in time for the February half-term week.