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Why are airlines threatening to fly planes empty?

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► What prompted Lufthansa to threaten to fly its planes without passengers?

The air transport sector is up against the European rules for allocating take-off slots at airports, deemed too rigid in this difficult period. Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr has gone so far as to say he will be forced to operate “18,000 useless flights” during winter “only to retain take-off and landing rights”.

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For its part, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents the vast majority of companies, considers that the current rules are “clearly unrealistic” and Belgium’s mobility minister has written to transport commissioner Adina Valean asking for an adjustment.

► What are the rules for allocating slots?

Slots are allocated twice a year. In large airports such as Paris or Frankfurt, which are usually close to saturation, the start and end of the day slots are very popular. Their number is limited, so companies fight to get them. Brussels has imposed rules so as to bring competition into play and to prevent a company from reserving slots without using them, simply to oust the competition. A spokesperson for the commission explains that it is “to ensure that airport capacity is used competitively for the benefit of all consumers”.

To keep their slots, in ordinary times, the companies must therefore use at least 80% of them, otherwise they lose them. With the collapse of traffic due to the pandemic, this rule was suspended for one year in March 2020. But since March 2021, a 50% threshold has been reintroduced. It will drop to 64% at the end of March 2022. However, the companies consider this to be too much, given the current uncertainty.

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► What solution could emerge?

The French Minister Delegate for Transport Jean-Baptiste Djebbari indicated on Saturday January 8 on his Twitter account that he will take up the subject. “We will ensure that no European company is forced to operate empty flights. The French presidency of the European Union has just begun. We will not hesitate to act”, he wrote.

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He also specifies that the European Commission should lead, in the coming weeks, a dialogue with the companies in order to adjust these thresholds.

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For its part, the French company Air France specified that it did not “never operated an empty leg to conserve slots and have no plans to do so”. She said to herself “in favor of a reassessment of the rules so that companies continue to operate flights only when demand justifies it”.

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