a sign in an airport

Update: as of March 11th, 2020, governing bodies have acted and slot restrictions are being eased. Read up on what was happening before the news, below.

One can only hope that all laws are passed with good intentions, but even the best intentions in law often have unintended consequences. This is precisely why British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are currently operating “ghost flights” with hardly any passengers, burning fuel and money at a record pace, without anything to show for it.

It’s all because of a well intentioned aviation law, which can’t be considered anything but silly given the unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves in. It’s effectively a “use it or lose it” rule, and until its suspended, the financial future of the UK’s major airlines is impeded.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – damn right, airlines shouldn’t just be able to cancel flights because flights aren’t full. You’re not wrong, but there’s already an important piece of legislation called EC261, which protects passengers with options and financial remedy.

people sitting in a terminal

If an airline cancels, moves or changes their flights by more than any reasonable amount of time, you are already covered by EU law. In other words – if an airline does cancel your flight, you are covered whether this “use it or lose it” business exists anyway. At least, as long as the UK remains in the EU.

So what’s this rule that’s causing empty ghost flights burning resources?

Under an international competition rule which has strong foothold in the UK, an airline must use their take off and landing slots from all major airports at least 80% of the time, otherwise the slot can be awarded – or sold – to another airline and gone forever. Use it, or lose it. UK Airport slots are managed by Airport Coordination Limited, and thus far the body has failed to act.

Similar rules exist in other parts of the world, and as noted, the intention of the rule is largely a good one, but other parts of the world such as China and Hong Kong have seen sense and temporarily suspended these costly slot restrictions so that airlines may avoid long term peril. If things continue indefinitely as they are currently, there may not be any airlines to operate any slots.

Airlines shouldn’t be able to block traffic or competition by controlling slots they don’t use. But the world has never seen pandemonium – due or undue – caused by current world health issues and until a return to anything remotely resembling business as usual, the 80-20 rule should be suspended.

Even though people jump on the tube with millions of sniffling passengers without fear, they’re not taking to the skies, and airlines, because of this rule are forced to fly anyway. It’s crazy.

Environmentally, financially and logically, it makes little sense, yet government is doing nothing.

a sign in an airport

Make no bones about it – this is damaging the bottom lines of all UK airlines, without any added real benefit to passengers. To reiterate, if an airline was to cancel a flight or move you on to one which significantly throws off your schedule – think 3-4 hours – you’d have other means of recourse, refund or re-routing through other laws. This is entirely unrelated.

It’s no fun when your plans change, particularly if you’re aiming to make the most of the low fares and low occupancy in hotels and tourism sites around the world being caused by the current unrest, but ultimately the long term viability of airlines is important, and you’ll be taken care of either way.

Let’s hope something is done to see reason here.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. ACL slot allocation runs starts/ends with the financial year. So BA and other airlines will have already achieved 80% this year for pretty much all of their schedule and are therefore do not need to run the ‘ghost flights. There are often intra London repositions of flights for maintenance or operational needs. The situation from April 6th of course maybe different but at the moment it really isn’t as you make out!

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