Ghost Flights: How Airlines Keep Their Slots At Congested Airports

At the beginning of the pandemic, reports came in about how airlines were operating empty or near-empty planes back and forth in order to avoid losing their much-coveted airport slots. The 80/20 use-it-or-lose-it rule was relaxed in March 2020. Now, the EU requires that 50% of slots be used for the carrier not to lose them for the upcoming season. However, with other slot-eager carriers waiting in the wings, this is not enough to prevent so-called ghost flights.

Aircraft landing Heathrow
Airlines are still flying ghost flights in order to keep their airport take-off and landing slots. Photo: Heathrow Airport

Ghost flights picking back up

A few days ago, the Lufthansa Group said it could be forced to operate the equivalent of 18,000 empty flights throughout the winter season to keep much-valued airport slots. Regulators eased up on the 80% use-it-or-lose-it slot rules early in the pandemic but re-introduced a 50% minimum in February last year.

With the rapid spread of the Omicron variant and subsequent drop in demand, airlines are again cutting schedules and capacity. However, slot rules remain at 50/50, and the European Union is facing increasing pressure to re-relax regulations in order to cut down on unnecessary so-called ‘ghost flights‘.

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Why are slots so important?

Primetime slots at congested airports are hard to come by. Congested in this case means that there is more demand for flights than there is runway and terminal capacity. IATA’s Worldwide Slot Allocation Guidelines (WASG) provide an industry-coordinated approach to how slots at the over 200 slot-controlled airports across the world should be awarded.

After airlines have made their request for slots to the airport ahead of each summer and winter season, an independent slot coordinator is responsible for the allocation. The idea behind IATA’s guidelines is to provide certainty for consumers and airlines and allow new airlines to enter busy airports, and increase choices for consumers.

Ghost Flights: How Airlines Keep Their Slots At Congested Airports
IATA’s slot allocation guides are intended to create more choices for consumers and a fair distribution of slots ahead of each season. Photo: Getty Images

Airlines can also communicate with each other and arrange slots between themselves to better suit their schedule if the coordinator agrees. However, the normal slot regulation states that an airline must use at least 80% of its slots at an airport not to lose them to another carrier the following season.

The European Union and the US waivered these rules in March 2020 to alleviate the pressure on carriers to fly their planes back and forth almost or entirely empty during the height of the pandemic. However, airlines eager to enter attractive airport markets were unhappy with the decision.

Wizz Air Ryanair easyJet Getty
Low-cost carriers looking to snag some slots due to full-service airlines being unwilling or unable to operate them during the crisis have not been happy with the temporary relaxation of the rules. Photo: Getty Images

Some are eager to bring back the 80/20 system

The UK also still maintains a waiver of the use-it-or-lose-it system. In November last year, low-cost carrier Wizz Air and Gatwick Airport jointly argued for reinstating a normal state of slot rule affairs in a letter to the UK government. As flying has picked back up, Gatwick has continued to suffer from the absence of both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic – while both airlines have been allowed to keep their slots.

“A return of the ‘80/20’ slot rules would bolster the UK aviation sector’s recovery, provide competition and choice for consumers, and help the country connect to vital international destinations,” the letter obtained by Reuters read.

The UK’s Department of Transport said it would provide an update on the waiver sometime early in 2022.