Game of Slots: Why Are Airlines Operating ‘Ghost Flights’?

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In light of sharp decrease in air travel demand, recently the sky has been full of empty or nearly empty aircraft still operating on their routes. These flights are also referred to as ‘ghost flights’. What do you know about this phenomenon?

As the name ‘ghost flight’ suggests itself, these are the flights without passengers or with very few passengers. But still costing the crew, fuel and severe impact on the environment. So why do they exist?

This a part of tough game played by airlines called: ‘protect your time slots’. Even without travellers air operators need to fly planes to secure their most valuable assets which are their airport slots.

This is why ‘ghost flights’ are absolutely legal and common practice in the aviation industry.

What is an Airport Slot?

Before the massive coronavirus hit aviation, the industry was growing at a skyrocketing pace. Even with the capacity offered by over 200 airports worldwide, it was not enough for all the airlines to accommodate their aircraft upon their will and need. Simply because of lack of proper infrastructure, because of limited space and limited availability of runways.

In order to manage disruptions and space available, airlines were put into an intense game of take-off and landing slots to avoid chaos and maintain smooth operations.

Most of airports are segmented into slots. Each slot is valid on a specific weekday, for a specific period of time for a specific plane of a specific airline to take advantages of the full range of airport infrastructure necessary to arrive or depart.

Slots are assigned to airlines by an independent slot coordinator to ensure that these are granted in a fair, neutral and transparent manner.

Based on the slots availability operators plan their schedules. Important to note that slots should be properly managed on both ends, at the airport of departure and at the airport of arrival. As far as each slot is tightly regulated by the time it requires airlines to be very punctual.

80/20 ‘Use It or Lose It’ Rule

Therefore, you may wonder why airlines just do not skip their slot, why they choose flying empty planes instead of keeping them on the ground, which, most probably, would cost much less. This is because when airlines do not utilise a slot assigned to them according to the set rules, they lose it to another airline.

In the European Union, for example, slots are managed by the a so-called ‘use it or lose it’ rule which requires an air operator to keep its slot busy for at least 80%. Otherwise, an airline risks to lose it to its competitor in the following year.

Keeping in mind the current situation created by the coronavirus, considering the situation within airlines, the European Commission has allowed to relax 80/20 ‘use it or lose it’ rule for airport slots until June, 2020.

“However, granting the suspension only until June is the very minimum the industry needs, and a decision on a full suspension until October will be needed within the next month to allow airlines to plan their schedules”, said the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in a statement.