Virgin Atlantic has revealed it is flying planes that are “almost empty” in order to ensure it does not lose landing slots at major airports such as Heathrow. Chief executive Shai Weiss said the airline is being “forced” to continue with flights because rules about slot allocation have not been relaxed. Other airlines are believed to be taking similar steps, with some even running “ghost planes” with no passengers on board.
The European Union operates a so-called “use it or lose it” policy which means airlines must use 80 percent of their allocated slots or risk them being taken away in the following year.
Demand for certain slots is extremely high, with slots at London’s Heathrow selling for as much as £57million.
In the UK, the rules apply to Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester, London Luton and London City.
The measure has already been suspended on routes to China and Hong Kong, but still applies elsewhere.
Mr Weiss said Virgin Atlantic is still operating many of its flights, despite reduced demand amid the coronavirus outbreak.
He said: “Passenger demand for air travel has dramatically fallen due to Covid-19 and in some instances, we are being forced to fly almost empty planes or lose our valuable slots.
“Given the almost unprecedented impact on global passenger demand, the UK slot co-ordinator and the European Commission need to now urgently relax the rules for the whole summer. Common sense must prevail.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has written to the European Commission to urge it allow “flexibility and adaptability” in relation to the slots.
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He also warned upholding the rule would be “entirely out of step with both the United Kingdom’s and the European Union’s climate commitments”.
One UK carrier has said that unless the rules change, it will have to operate 32 flights over the next two weeks with only 40 percent of the aircraft occupied.
That would leave more than 5,000 seats empty.
Airport Coordination Limited, the body directly responsible for slot allocation in the UK has called for the “use it or lose it” measure to be suspended until the end of June.
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Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, the industry body representing UK-registered airlines, said: “Carriers are being forced to fly half-empty planes or risk losing that take-off slot in future, seriously affecting their ability to plan ahead.
“It makes no sense whatsoever under these unique and challenging circumstances to force airlines to fly empty aircraft, wasting money and fuel and creating carbon emissions.
“We urgently need a temporary suspension of the rule – as happened during the financial crisis – to allow airlines to respond to demand and use their aircraft efficiently.”
The European Commission is currently reviewing whether the slot policy should be relaxed.
A spokesman said: “The Commission is currently assessing all available data regarding the significant impact of Covid-19 on the aviation industry.
“The Commission is actively assessing all possible options, including revising the slots legislation to address the challenge.”
The EU has opted to suspend the policy during previous periods of financial stress for airlines, including after the 9/11 terrorist attack, the SARS outbreak
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