Ghost flights spark a war between airlines

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ghost flights

MADRID – In the European discussion about ghost flights, the Spanish companies Iberia and Vueling are distancing themselves from travelling without passengers. Instead, stimulating demand shapes their strategy.

The Spanish aviation association ALA claims it is not aware of ghost flights. Iberia assures it has never used this tactic, even during the hard lockdown of 2020. Vueling does not follow this strategy either but is committed to boosting flight demand through almost weekly offers.

Controversy over ghost flights

The controversy over ghost flights – planes that travel without passengers – has sparked a war between some of Europe’s major airlines. Companies such as Lufthansa and Brussels Airlines stated that they are cancelling hundreds of flights given the new drop in demand and that to follow European regulations and keep their flight rights at airports (slots), many of its planes will have to take off empty.

Making tickets cheaper

This announcement has taken the low-cost sector by surprise and Europe’s largest low-cost airline operator Ryanair has already responded. CEO Michael O’Leary believes that if airlines want to fill their planes, ‘they should sell cheaper tickets’. In a public statement, O’Leary accused the German company of putting up smoke screens with ghost flights, a criticism shared by other airlines.

All companies want to keep the best flight times

At the heart of the matter is the struggle between major airlines and low-cost carriers to maintain the best flight times at the best airports in Europe in a time of maximum competition. There are few passengers on the same number of airlines as before the pandemic. For an airline under the current circumstances it means life or death continuing to fly at the biggest airports. That is why Lufthansa and Brussels Airlines want to temporarily change the European rules. Ryanair and the other airlines do not support this.

Ghost flights in a climate emergency

According to the requirements of the European Commission (EC), airlines must use 80% of their slots to keep them in every season. If they don’t meet this minimum, they will lose these slots. They must be reassigned. That means they can also go to another company. This resulted in planes flying empty at the start of the pandemic and burning kerosene to comply with the regulations. A very controversial practice in a climate emergency.

Conditions increased at the start of the season

The EC reacted anyway and lowered the requirement from 80% to 50%. This requirement still applies. But at the end of March, when the air summer season kicks in, Europe is again raising conditions and airlines will have to use at least 64% of their slots to keep them. Some large companies oppose this.

Delayed recovery by Omicron

The arrival of Omicron is slowing down the recovery that started in the last months of 2021. The airlines fear they cannot meet the European requirements and will, therefore, lose slots. That makes it very likely that low-cost airlines, which are more agile in adapting to changes, can adopt them.

However, the low-cost airline sector points out that major carriers continue to sell “expensive” tickets at “expensive” prices given the context, while low-cost carriers continue to cut their prices.

The EC is now at the point of deciding whether or not to grant the request to relax some airlines’ flight rules.

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