BRUSSELS - As the omicron variant derails travel plans around the world, airlines say strict European Union regulations are forcing them to fly near-empty flights - unnecessary and environmentally harmful flights that they argue they need to fly to save their long-term takeoff and landing slots at European airports.
Airlines must use a certain percentage of their designated slots at airports to hold on to them. But low demand during the pandemic has led airlines to fly near empty flights, often known as ghost flights, to meet the requirements. Lufthansa, a large German airline, has said it canceled 33,000 trips, or 10% of its winter flights, because of low demand but still anticipates needing to fly 18,000 "poorly booked" flights to secure its slots.
The E.U. waived these requirements at the beginning of the pandemic but partially reinstated them last year. Before the pandemic, airlines needed to use 80% of their takeoff and landing slots to keep them. Last year, the E.U. said airlines need to use at least 50% of them and allowed them to apply for exceptions if they need to go below that threshold.
But airlines and environmental groups say it is not enough and the rules for exemptions are unclear. They want the E.U. to scrap the thresholds all together - at least during the pandemic. The requirement is scheduled to increase to 64% in the spring.
The American Federal Aviation Administration has minimum slot requirements at three airports - New York's Kennedy and La Guardia airports and Washington's Reagan National Airport - and waived the requirements through March 2022 for international flights.
"We would rather cancel them, and they should also be avoided for the sake of the environment," Maaike Andries, spokesperson for Brussels Airlines, which is owned by Lufthansa, told the Brussels Times, adding that she anticipates the airline needing to cancel 3,000 flights from now until March.
E.U. officials have defended their policies and say they need to strike a balance between protecting consumers and boosting a hampered airline industry. If airlines could cancel flights with impunity, for example, they would be able to frequently rebook passengers on flights on different days to maximize profits.
A senior European Commission official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak publicly on the issue, told reporters last week that it had no evidence of airlines, including Lufthansa, needing to fly "ghost flights" during the omicron variant and provided statistics showing that air travel in the first days of January is around 77% of pre-pandemic times and expected to go up.
During the pandemic, the E.U. has provided the airline industry tens of billions of dollars in bailout money.
"As required, the protection of historic slots must be balanced with the need to ensure that airport capacity is used in a pro competitive way for the benefit of all consumers," E.U. spokesman Daniel Ferrie told reporters.
Magdalena Heuwieser, spokesperson for Stay Grounded, a network of more than 170 organizations that advocates for alternatives to air travel, argued that the E.U. should encourage fewer flights to take off, not create rules that incentivize airlines to fly more planes.
She said this could also encourage airlines to lower airfares to get more people on board - something that environmental groups have long advocated against, saying planes carry large carbon footprints and should only be used if trains or other modes are not feasible.
"In times of climate crisis, you cannot afford any unnecessary flights," Heuwieser said.
Ryanair - a large European-based budget airline - has said its low-cost airfares have spared them from some of the challenges that other airlines have faced during the pandemic, arguing it is unnecessary to fly "ghost flights" and called on Lufthansa to lower its prices to get more people on board.
"The solution to Lufthansa's 'ghost flights' problem is a simple one - just sell these seats to consumers," Michael O'Leary, CEO of Ryanair, said in a statement last week. "If Lufthansa really needs to operate these flights, then they should be required to sell these seats to the public at low fares."
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The Washington Post's Quentin Ariès contributed to this report.