It is hard to think of an industry that has been affected more since the outbreak of COVID-19 than the aviation industry. An industry with a business model that relies on moving large amounts of people across the globe, generally within close contact of each other, has been decimated in the past two years.
While the ghostly scenes of scores of grounded planes parked on the tarmac and abandoned international airport terminals are not as prevalent as they were in early 2020, the industry is still struggling. Despite a modest recovery, the threat of new variants, potential travel bans, and testing requirements mean passenger numbers are nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. In 2021 passengers boarded by the global airline industry amounted to just over 2.2 billion people – a 50% loss in global air passenger traffic compared to 2019.
In the early days of 2020’s lockdown, many sought solace in the environmental benefits of the global shutdown, with the European Environmental Agency writing in November 2020 that the beneficial impacts to the environment included “temporary improvements in air quality, lower greenhouse gas emissions and lower levels of noise pollution.”
Landing and departure slots for popular routes in Europe’s busiest airports are one of the most precious commodities in the aviation industry. The EU adopts a “use it or lose it” approach in order to secure airport parking slots. To keep them, airlines have to guarantee a take-up of at least 80% of their flights to retain their coveted slots.
Reflecting on the pandemic’s impact on the industry, the Commission has initially decided to reduce this to 50% to also prevent airlines having to operate so-called ghost flights just to ensure they retain access to their slots.
Last December, however, in light of the industry’s recovery the European Commission announced a raise of the 50% threshold to 64% for this year’s April-to-November summer schedule. Yet, as a result of the Omicron variant and remaining travel uncertainty, even with the 50% quota in place, airlines continue to being forced to operate uneconomical and environmentally damaging ghost flights to maintain the quota required.
As such, it was revealed this week that if the EU doesn’t take action, Brussels Airlines would have to fly some 3,000 journeys this winter primarily to safeguard its network rights, with its parent Lufthansa saying that it would have to fly an additional “unnecessary” 18,000 flights. While not much is known about Europe’s other airlines, the same can be expected for them.
This has caused obvious environmental concerns, with climate activist Greta Thunberg sarcastically tweeting “the EU surely is in a climate emergency mode,” referencing the story concerning Brussels Airlines, while Belgian Transport Minister Georges Gilkinet wrote a rebuking letter to EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean stating that “the high-level pollution created by these flights runs totally counter to the EU’s climate objectives”.
Commission spokesperson Daniel Ferrie, however, stated on Wednesday that “the overall reduced consumer demand […] is already reflected in a much-reduced rate of 50% compared to the usual 80%-use rate rule,” adding that “the Commission expects that operated flights follow consumer demand and offer much needed continued air connectivity to citizens.”
The European Commission, however, finds itself in a tricky situation. It must balance the need for competition for airport slots and best serve European consumers, while also keeping empty planes out of European skies.
Whether they will need to alter that balance in the near future remains to be seen.