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Coronavirus: Virgin Atlantic admits flying almost empty planes

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Virgin Atlantic has confirmed that it has been forced to operate some almost empty flights after reservations have been dented by the coronavirus epidemic.

It is operating flights to try to maintain take-off and landing areas at major airports such as Heathrow.

Under European law, if flights are not operated, slots must be lost.

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps wrote to the European Commission asking that the rules on slot allocation be loosened during the blast.

Other carriers are thought to be taking similar steps, although so-called “ghost planes” are said to be flying without passengers on board to safeguard their presence in major hubs.

‘Use it or lose it’

Airline passenger numbers have fallen dramatically in recent weeks due to the coronavirus epidemic. On some routes they halved and the carriers canceled the services.

However, this could cause them a serious problem, particularly if they fly out of large or heavily congested airports. According to international guidelines, which are enshrined in European law, the take-off and landing areas in these airports are limited.

In the UK, the rules apply to Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester, London Luton and London City.

Slots are granted based on the historical rights of these airports. If, for example, a carrier ran a particular program during last year’s summer season, this summer it retains the right to those same slots.

But there’s a problem. According to the “use or lose it” rule, slots must be used at least 80% of the time. If an airline fails to reach that threshold, the slots are put back into a pool and assigned to other carriers.

Although they are technically granted for free, there is a thriving secondary market where the most desirable slots can change hands for significant sums – tens of millions of pounds over a season. So airlines are very reluctant to lose them.

The rule has already been suspended on routes to China and Hong Kong, but still applies elsewhere.

“The demand for passengers to travel by plane has dropped dramatically because of Covid-19 and in some cases we are forced to fly almost empty planes or lose our precious slots,” said Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic.

A British carrier said that unless the rules change, it will have to operate 32 flights in the next two weeks with only 40% of the aircraft occupied. This would leave over 5,000 seats empty.

“Wasting money and fuel”

Airlines are lobbying for the rules to be loosened.

Tim Alderslade, CEO of the industrial company Airlines UK, said: “It makes no sense in these unique and demanding circumstances to force airlines to fly empty planes, wasting money and fuel and creating carbon emissions.”

He added: “We urgently need a temporary suspension of the rule – as happened during the financial crisis – to allow airlines to respond to the question and use their aircraft efficiently.”

However, if the rules are to be loosened, the decision will have to come from Brussels. Although the UK has officially withdrawn from the European Union (EU), an EU regulation on slot allocation still applies.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps wrote to the European Commission on Monday. He asked to introduce “practical and proportionate measures” to deal with the situation, including possibly “flexibility with the 80% threshold, implemented market by market or more generally”.

The body directly responsible for slot allocation in the UK, Airport Coordination Limited, has joined other organizations across Europe demanding that the “use or lose” measure be suspended from mid-February until the end of June.

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