“Ghost planes” have been flying over Europe and beyond amid the coronavirus outbreak, with a steady stream of passengers reporting rows of unfilled seats.
Across Europe and the US, social media users have posted images of deserted cabins, including on British Airways, EasyJet and American Airlines flights, as passenger demand continues to fall.
Although official figures are not released until April, evidence suggests that average passenger load factors may be been down by as much as 50 per cent. This was prior to Italy’s nationwide lock-down and the cancellation of many flights to and from the country.
Virgin Atlantic admitted earlier this week that it was continuing to operate empty flights in order to hold onto take-off and landing slots as specified under the European Union 80:20 or “use-it-or-lose-it” rule. Under this regulation, an airline must operate at least 80 per cent of its allocated slots or lose its right to them.
However, on March 10, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc would temporarily suspend the rule as airlines cancelled flights amid a drop in demand.
The decision must now be implemented by the European Parliament and the European Council, followed by national flight slot coordinators.
Adina-Ioana Vălean, the European Commissioner for Transport, said: “Given the urgency, the Commission calls on the European Parliament and the Council to swiftly adopt this measure in co-decision procedure.”
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said in a statement on Twitter: “Following my letter to the EU Commission about preventing near empty ghost planes in our skies during [coronavirus] outbreak, I’m pleased to receive confirmation they’ll relax the use-it-or-lose-it rule. However I urge them to act quickly to protect airlines & the environment!”
The decision followed a letter from Shapps to the European Commission in which he urged the bloc to end the landing spots rule.
A spokesperson for Airlines UK, the trade body for UK airlines, said: “We now urge the UK’s slot coordinator ACL to implement these measures here without delay once the necessary EU laws have been changed. With coronavirus significantly impacting demand it makes no sense to force airlines to fly empty aircraft, wasting money and fuel and damaging the environment. We urgently need this temporary suspension implemented to allow airlines to respond to demand properly and use their aircraft as efficiently as possible.”
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) added: “[It’s] good that the EU Commission is considering temporary waiver of airport slot rule. But airlines urgently need clarity so they can adjust capacity for better financial and environmental sustainability. We need confirmed suspension of the slot rule for all summer flights as soon as possible.”
The summer flight season starts on March 29. There is some suggestion that the suspension of the slot rule could come into effect as early as next week.
For the moment, a number of passengers flying to and from the UK are boarding near empty flights. Many are heading to destinations without coronavirus-related restrictions, revealing the widespread impact of the virus on travel and business travel plans.
Kevin Ellis posted a video on Twitter of a fellow passenger breakdancing down the aisle of an all-but-empty easyJet plane that was about to set off from Bristol to Cannes.
He told Telegraph Travel: “We were a party of three, but there were only four of us on the flight, plus the crew. We’ve used the route frequently at the same time of year and it has always been full.
“I believe the flight would have been full of other delegates attending a property event held in Cannes annually, but that was cancelled due to the French restrictions on events over 5,000 people. We decided to continue with the trip, having bought the accommodation, which wasn’t refundable.”
Gary Bembridge boarded an American Airlines 777 four-class plane from Heathrow to Miami (a route he often takes) on March 7 and found the weekend flight much quieter than usual. He told Telegraph Travel there were around 25 people on board when the flight took off, only around half the plane’s business class capacity.
A British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Dublin on March 9 was also very quiet, according to Eva Ostaszewska. “I think there might have been around 40 people. The plane looked totally empty,” she told Telegraph Travel.
The IATA said the EU Commission’s suspension of the 80:20 rule helps, but doesn’t alleviate the crisis facing the aviation industry. It has said airlines could suffer a loss of $113 billion as a result of the outbreak.
EasyJet told Telegraph Travel it has cancelled services to match demand.