Some airlines in Europe are operating ‘ghost flights’ without passengers to make sure they do not lose precious take-off and landing slots at airports.
Virgin Atlantic confirmed to the BBC that it has operated some near-empty flights while British Airways is also thought to have flown short 20-minute flights to ensure slots are kept in use.
The ‘use it or lose it’ law dictates that airlines can lose their airport slots if they fail to use them 80% of the time.
Airlines are concerned they could lose their presence at major hubs because they have been forced to cut thousands of flights in response to Covid-19.
Operators say that they face falling below the 80% threshold if they do not operate any flights. But operating ‘ghost flights’ costs airlines fuel and money.
Slots at airports such as Heathrow are extremely lucrative and are worth tens of millions of dollars to airlines.
Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, told the BBC: “Passenger demand for air travel has dramatically fallen due to Covid-19 and in some instances we are being forced to fly almost empty planes or lose our valuable slots.”
Earlier this month, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) called for regulators to immediately suspend slot rules amid the virus crisis.
IATA said applying the ‘80% rule’ in the 2020 season is “inappropriate” given the challenges airlines are currently facing.
The 80% slot rule has already been suspended on routes to China and Hong Kong, but remains elsewhere.
Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s CEO, said: “We are calling for regulators worldwide to help the industry plan for today’s emergency, and the future recovery of the network, by suspending the slot use rules on a temporary basis.”