UK airlines fly "ghost flights" to keep airport spots amid coronavirus: report

Mar 10 2020, 10:33 am

It is no secret that the ongoing panic surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak has had a significantly negative impact on the overall travel industry.

Many global airlines are struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy as stock prices continue to drop, and passenger numbers further dwindle.

In fact, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA),  the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in global revenue losses for passenger businesses falling between a whopping $63 and $113 billion USD ($87 and $156 billion CAD).

Airlines in the United Kingdom are suffering from these losses as well as experiencing their own set of own issues amid the outbreak having no choice but to fly nearly empty “ghost flights” as a means of maintaining their airport landing spots, according to a report by The Times.

Europe operates under a “use it or lose it” policy regarding airlines, the report explains, such that those conducting flights into and out of Europe must use 80% of their airport landing slots or risk losing them to competitors.

Not wanting to concede their spots, airlines have been conducting flights regardless of low occupancy, which has resulted in substantial financial and environmental costs.

Grant Shapps, the UK Transport Secretary, wrote to Airport Coordination Limited voicing his concerns surrounding this controversial policy, requesting that the 80% rule be lifted or, at the very least, altered to adjust to the decrease in travel demand amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“The impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak are increasingly being felt across Europe,” the letter reads.

“This includes significant impacts on the aviation sector, with many airlines reporting considerable deterioration in passenger demand, consequently exacerbating pressures on commercial operations.

“I am deeply concerned that the ’80:20,’ or ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ rule under Regulation 95/93 is compounding the risk of airlines flying empty or near-empty aircraft primarily to avoid losing their historical rights. Such behaviour would be entirely out of step with both the United Kingdom’s and the European Union’s climate commitments.”

Shapps explains that he is already aware of the recommended alleviation of the 80:20 rule for flights journeying to and from mainland China and Hong Kong amid the coronavirus outbreak, but explains that further action needs to be taken to widen this alleviation across the industry.

“I am writing to urge the commission to act by introducing practical and proportionate measures which would allow flexibility and adaptability to respond as the picture develops. These could include temporary, ‘rolling’ alleviations and flexibility with the 80% usage threshold, implemented on a market-by-market basis or more broadly.”

The overall demand within the travel industry is concerningly low, and the public concern regarding the coronavirus shows no sign of slowing down, which means that the desire to venture to crowd-filled areas such as airports or planes is likely to remain somewhat limited.

However, flying relatively empty “ghost flights” may not be the most logical response to this issue, especially if it only leads to further financial and environmental costs that the industry, as well as the world, cannot afford.