Brussels has reacted to the coronavirus epidemic by suspending the EU’s use-it-or-lose it rules on airport landing slots, freeing airlines to halt “ghost flights” in which planes have been taking off without any passengers.
The aviation sector has been badly hit by the crisis after a collapse in customer demand and the requirement under EU rules that they use 80% of their allocated slots or risk losing them to a competitor.
Airlines from across Europe have been unnecessarily burning their way through thousands of tonnes of fuel flying near empty planes at a time when takings are down and are expected to plummet further.
The UK and its airlines remain tied to the EU rulebook until the end of 2020. Virgin Atlantic is among the carriers flying planes that are “almost empty” to keep takeoff and landing slots.
The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said she feared the situation for the aviation industry would only worsen in coming days and weeks.
“The coronavirus outbreak has a major impact on the European and international aviation industry. We see that the situation is deteriorating on a daily basis, and traffic is expected to decline further. And this is why the commission will put forward very rapidly legislation regarding the so-called airport slots,” she said.
“We want to make it easier for airlines to keep their airport slot, even if they do not operate flights in those slots, because of the declining traffic.”
Von der Leyen said it was a temporary measure aimed at helping the industry and environment. “It will relieve the pressure on the aviation industry and in particular on smaller airline companies, but it will also decrease emissions by avoiding the so called ghost flights. When airlines fly, almost empty planes, simply to keep that slot.”
Ciarán Cuffe, a Green MEP, said he was concerned that Von der Leyen had not given a timeline for the suspension and had instead called for swift agreement on her proposal by the EU council of ministers and the European parliament, which was not currently voting as a result of the epidemic.
Cuffe said: “It’s worrying. I would hope she can use emergency commission powers rather than wait for the European parliament to commence voting again.”
Several large airlines have been hit hard by the outbreak and were taking emergency measures to cut their costs.
The International Air Transport Association estimates the industry could lose $113bn (£87bn) in sales.
ACI Europe, which represents European airports, said its initial assessment was that passenger numbers between January and March would drop by 14%. “The Covid-19 epidemic is turning into a shock of unprecedented proportions for our industry,” the director general, Olivier Jankovec, said.
On Tuesday, British Airways suspended all flights to and from Italy, the European country in which the virus has had its biggest impact so far.
Ryanair said no flights would serve Italy from Saturday until 9 April and easyJet has cancelled dozens of its flights to the country. Air France is reducing its traffic to Italy by half throughout March.
Spain has also banned direct flights between Italy and its airports, which amount to 9% of all Spanish international air traffic. About 16 million passengers took flights between the two countries last year.
Beyond Italian routes, the third largest low-cost airline in Europe, Norwegian Air Shuttle, plans to cut 15% of its capacity –about 3,000 flights over the next three months – after a slump in demand. The company said it would also temporarily lay off a significant share of its workforce.
The Dutch-French consortium Air France-KLM said its Paris-based division would cancel 3,600 flights this month.
In the US, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines reported on Tuesday that they were no longer confident of their 2020 financial forecasts and would reduce their flight capacity.
Ed Bastian, Delta’s chief executive, said: “As the virus has spread, we have seen a decline in demand across all entities, and we are taking decisive action to also protect Delta’s financial position.”
Qantas has already grounded the majority of its A380 jets, and cut management pay by 30%. The chief executive, Alan Joyce, has said he would take no salary for the rest of 2020.
Korean Air’s chief executive, Woo Kee-hong, has reportedly warned staff that the company was at risk of collapse unless the virus was brought under control swiftly.