MIAMI – Due to the worsening of the Omicron wave in Europe, airlines are forced to operate thousands of half-empty flights to maintain much-wanted slots (take-off and landing rights) at major airports.

Brussels Airlines (SN) is no exception, with the Belgian carrier expected to fly 3,000 empty or near-empty flights, mainly within Europe, until March. With the Lufthansa Group (LH) forced to fly 18,000 total flights this winter that would have been canceled due to the lack o demand. This, despite a total of 33,000 scheduled cancellations already planned by the group.

The news has caused the reaction of the Belgian federal government, with the federal mobility minister Georges Gilkinet writing to the European Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean, raising both ecological and financial concerns.

Brussels Airlines OO-SSD Airbus A319-112. Photo: Fabrizio Spicuglia/airways

EU Slot Relief Rules

Before the pandemic, the European Union (EU) slot regulations stated that airlines must operate at least 80% of their scheduled take-off and landing slots not to lose them.

Currently, the EU is extending the slot relief rule, with airlines forced to operate 50% of their scheduled slots. Still, the percentage stands much higher than the actual demand.

On December 15 2021 the EU Mobility and Transport Commission adopted another extension to the slot relief rules, targeting the summer 2021 season (28 March 2022 to 29 October 2022). The latest extension set the percentage of flights needed to retain the slots to 64%.

On that occasion, the Commissioner of Transport underlined once more, “the Commission has demonstrated throughout the COVID-19 crisis its willingness and ability to act swiftly where needed, and this will remain the case in the coming months.”

Yet, with the current Omicron situation and the willingness of European airlines to retain their slots, ghost flights are still expected over Europe.

Featured image: Brussels Airlines OO-SFD Airbus A330-342. Photo: Francesco Cecchetti/Airways