The Lufthansa Group has said that it will be forced to fly the equivalent of 18,000 empty planes during the winter season in order to keep its valuable airport slots. The ‘use it or lose it’ slot rule had been suspended in March 2020, but was brought back incrementally and now stands at 50%. Despite canceling some 33,000 flights, the airline fears unnecessary flights will be operated just to preserve its slots.
Despite already announcing the cancelation of some 33,000 flights across the winter season, Lufthansa is set to be forced to fly some planes empty or near-empty as a result of the return of slot restrictions. Across the Group, some 18,000 services are expected to be unnecessary to operate, but required to fly in order to hold onto takeoff and landing slots.
Speaking to Frankfurter Allgemeiner Sonntagszeitung, the airline Group CEO Carsten Spohr commented,
“We will have to carry out 18,000 extra, unnecessary flights, just to secure our take-off and landing rights.”
The so-called ‘use it or lose it’ rule for airport slots had been suspended by the European Union early in the pandemic, in March 2020. However, the restrictions have been brought back incrementally, going from 0% to 25% utilization, and more recently ticking up to 50%.
While the current requirement is still much lower than the 80% utilization requirement pre-COVID, even 50% is proving to be a challenge. Worse still, Europe’s airlines have only weeks to go until the EU increases the level of slot restrictions, with a 64% utilization rate kicking in from the start of the summer season (late March).
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Although the Lufthansa Group is not alone in its need to cancel flights this winter, the situation seems somewhat different from that which is happening across the pond. In the US, thousands of flights have been canceled in the past weeks, but mainly due to staff sickness and a lack of personnel.
Over in Europe, it is not the lack of people that is causing the problems; rather, it is the lack of demand. Spohr noted a weak booking outlook for the rest of the winter season, with a sharp downturn noted starting in mid-January and continuing through February. Having enjoyed a flurry of bookings as the transatlantic travel restrictions lifted, it seems the world is now settling down to a much quieter start to the new year.
The cancelation of 33,000 flights across the Group is one means of mitigating the impact of this downturn. However, the return of the slot rules means the Group cannot cancel any further flights, forcing it to operate even when demand is not sufficient. While this will be unwelcome from an operational and profitability standpoint, the real loser is the environment.
The decision by Brussels to stick with the ‘use it or lose it’ slot ruling in the present climate seems contrary to its ‘Fit for 55’ program. The program endeavors to reduce greenhouse gasses by 55% by the year 2030, with air traffic a key focus to mitigate these emissions. However, there are exceptions allowed for extreme events, so hopefully, the current downturn will be considered as such so that these ghost flights can be avoided.