Airport trade body ACI Europe has expressed dismay at what it says is “the escalating industry and political rhetoric around so-called ‘ghost flights’” – where services are voluntarily operated by airlines exclusively for the purpose of retaining historic rights to their slots.

Media outlets including The Metro have reported that some European carriers are set to ope rate thousands of ghost flights this winter, to ensure they do not lose airport slots under the “use-it-or-lose-it” rules.

ACI Europe said that the current usage threshold of 50 per cent – set by the EU Commission – is “significantly lower” than the usual 80/20 rule, and is “designed to reflect the uncertainties of a badly hit market and fragile recovery for aviation”.

The body said that there were also special provisions in place for what the Worldwide Airport Slot Guidelines call “Justified Non-Use of Slots”, allowing airlines to “present the case to their slot-coordinators for the application of this provision, allowing them to effectively use their allocated airport slots for less than 50 per cent of the time”.

This provision is designed to address issues  as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, such as travel bans, restrictions of movement, quarantine or “isolation measures which impact the viability or possibility of travel or the demand for travel on specific routes”.

ACI said that these measures meant airlines are “very well protected from the current uncertainties”, making it unclear why the issue of ghost flights was now under discussion.

“A few airlines are claiming they are forced to run high volumes of empty flights in order to retain airport slot usage rights,” said Olivier Jankovec, director general of ACI Europe.

“There is absolutely no reason why this should be the reality. As was clearly stated by the European Commission at their press briefing yesterday (January 5), slot usage rules need to achieve two things in the current circumstances. Firstly, to protect airlines from the worst of unpredictabilities which are out of all our hands. Secondly, and crucially, to also ensure that airport capacity is still used in a pro-competitive way.

“The pandemic has hit us all hard. Balancing commercial viability alongside the need to retain essential connectivity and protect against anti-competitive consequences is a delicate task. We believe that the European Commission has got this right.

“Talk of ghost flights, and of their environmental impacts, seems to hint at a doomsday scenario which has no place in reality. Let’s stick to the vital task of recovering and rebuilding together”.