Ghost flights likely to increase after UK government ruling

Operators must use their airport slots to retain the right to keep them

Airlines must use their slots at least 70 per cent of the time to keep them from March 27. Reuters
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More empty aircraft are likely to take off from the UK's busiest airports after airlines were told to operate more flights or risk losing lucrative take-off and landing slots.

They must use their slots at least 70 per cent of the time to keep them from March 27, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced.

The Cabinet minister said the increase from the current level of 50 per cent will “balance the needs” of various parts of the aviation industry as it recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision was welcomed by Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

Airlines were traditionally required to use 80 per cent of slots to retain the right to use them during the following year.

But this has been eased during the virus crisis to prevent airlines needing to operate environmentally unfriendly ghost flights with no passengers to retain slots, which can be worth several millions of pounds each at Heathrow.

The alleviation of slot rules has benefited some airlines such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, which have retained their rights at Gatwick despite cutting flights at the airport.

But it has frustrated the West Sussex airport and carriers that want to expand, including Ryanair and Wizz Air.

Earlier this month, the EU was urged to relax airline rules that led to thousands of empty planes crossing Europe over the winter, prompting concerns over the effect on the climate and unnecessary waste of resources.

German airline Lufthansa said it would have to run 18,000 empty flights during the winter to keep its airport slots.

Its Belgian subsidiary, Brussels Airlines, expects 3,000 such trips by the end of March.

Meanwhile, the chief executives of the UK’s largest airlines have written to the government to demand an end to coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

They ask that restriction-free travel is restored “at the very least” for those who are fully vaccinated.

Today, Mr Shapps said: “Leaving the EU has allowed us to take back control of our airport slots rules, giving us greater flexibility to balance the needs of our magnificent aviation industry as it faces up to the pandemic.

“Today’s extension marks a step back towards normal rules, helping the sector to recover and grow as travel returns, while protecting it against any future uncertainty.”

Slot rules were suspended at UK airports in summer 2020 and winter 2020/21 after a decision by the EU.

The Government extended the slot waiver into summer 2021, but reintroduced the rule at 50 per cent for winter 2021/22.

Aviation minister Robert Courts said: “Since the onset of the pandemic we have provided relief from the slots usage rule to provide financial stability to the sector and prevent environmentally damaging ghost flights.

“As demand for flights returns, it’s right we gradually move back to the previous rules while making sure we continue to provide the sector with the support it needs.”

Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate said the change meant passengers would “once again benefit from a competitive aviation market, a wider choice of services and a range of airfares to suit different needs”.

He went on: “The decision will also help generate many new routes and connections from Gatwick and provide a very welcome boost to the local economy and people across the region by supporting a wide range of new job opportunities in the coming weeks, as well as other business opportunities.”

A Heathrow spokeswoman described the government decision as “fair to airports and airlines”.

She said: “It strikes the right balance between driving recovery and promoting competition, which is positive for consumers, while recognising that the industry still faces uncertainty and needs support.”

Updated: January 24, 2022, 9:37 AM