A Boeing 747-8 Lufthansa airplane takes off from the Airport Tegel in Berlin.
Britta Pedersen | AFP | Getty Images
Airlines in Europe this winter are flying passenger planes that are at times nearly empty in order to hold onto coveted take-off and landing spots at airports during a time of lower travel demand.
Recent publicity around this usage requirement has sparked controversy and anger at a time of growing international concern over climate change and the carbon emissions created by the aviation industry.
Airport industry representatives, meanwhile, are defending it, arguing for the need to maintain commercial viability, connectivity and competitiveness.
Airlines have expressed frustration over so-called “use it or lose it” slot rules established by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, which was suspended in March 2020 as the industry was floored by the Covid-19 pandemic. It has since been brought back incrementally to now require airlines to use 50% of their allocated airport slots. That figure is scheduled to increase to 80% this summer.
German carrier Lufthansa is among those airlines, and is already cutting some 33,000 flights over the winter season as the omicron variant hobbles demand. Still, it has to make 18,000 flights over the winter season to meet its slot use requirement, its CEO said. Its subsidiary Brussels Airlines is having to make 3,000 almost-empty flights by the end of March.
“Due to the weak demand in January, we would have reduced significantly more flights,” Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr told a German newspaper in late December. “But we have to make 18,000 additional, unnecessary flights in winter just to secure our take-off-and-landing rights.”
He added: “While climate-friendly exemptions were found in almost all other parts of the world during the time of the pandemic, the EU does not allow this in the same way. That harms the climate and is exactly the opposite of what the EU Commission wants to achieve with its ‘Fit for 55’ program.”
A Pratt & Whitney PW1000G turbofan engine sits on the wing of an Airbus A320neo aircraft during a delivery ceremony outside the Airbus Group SE factory in Hamburg, Germany, on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016.
Bloomberg | Krisztian Bocsi
The “Fit for 55” program was adopted by Commission in July of 2021 to meet the new EU goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 55% by 2030.
In the face of criticism from airlines and environmentalists, airport industry representatives are pushing back, saying there is “no reason” why the thousands of near-empty flights should be reality.
Airport industry body Airports Council International (ACI) expressed support for the European Commission’s position, arguing that its lowering of the airport slot use threshold to 50% was “designed to reflect the uncertainties of a badly hit market and fragile…