No ‘ghost flights’ to Zurich airport, authorities say

Some reports claim that planes have been flying without passengers in order to maintain landing slots. Keystone / Laurent Gillieron

With passenger numbers down due to Covid-19, some airlines want authorities to loosen rules maintaining that airport landing slots are lost unless fully used.

This content was published on March 10, 2020 minutes

“Use it or lose it”: regulations state that when an airline is allocated a landing slot, it must use it at least 80% of the time planned, or else risk being stripped of it the following year.

As the coronavirus outbreak disrupts travel plans globally and airlines cancel or pare back flights, this is reportedly leading to drastic measures and calls to loosen the rules.

Speaking on Swiss public radio RTSExternal link on Monday, the Director General of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Alexandre de Juniac, said that his group had asked regulators to waive the rules until October, given the current situation.

He was responding to reports – including from The TimesExternal link – that some planes had been flying with few or no passengers at all in order not to lose out on the valuable slots.

According to The Times, British Transport Minister Grant Shapps also wrote to the airport slot coordinator in the UK, asking it to relax the existing regulations due to concerns about the environmental impact of running empty flights.

So far, de Juniac said on Monday, the rules remain in place – apart from exceptions for Hong Kong and China – but he expects that “a favourable decision will be taken”.

He also said, regarding airlines operating empty planes, that “it’s possible this is happening, but it’s quite limited”.

Tricky situation

A spokesperson from Swiss International Airlines told on Tuesday that they have not been operating empty or near-empty flights in a bid to maintain landing slots.

However, the spokesman said, “we would welcome a targeted suspension of the present slot regulations that would release airlines from having to operate empty flights just to retain their landing and takeoff rights, which would make no sense at all in economic or ecological terms”.

Authorities at Zurich airport, meanwhile, also told that they had not heard of such “ghost flights” landing or taking off from their tarmac.

As for the rules around slots, although the airport “understands” the tricky situation airlines find themselves in due to the 80/20 usage rule, it also can’t change the situation – these rules are set by other regulators, including slot coordination SwitzerlandExternal link.

At the European level, meanwhile, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday that the EU indeed planned to introduce temporary legislation to solve the landing slot problem without causing undue environmental damage.

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