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EU hits back in Lufthansa-Ryanair ‘ghost flights’ spat

The EU has insisted its rules do not force airlines to operate ‘ghost flights’ to keep their airport slots, in a row that has stoked tensions between Lufthansa and Ryanair.

n EU official slammed Lufthansa on Thursday for what he called an “unnecessary fuss” and said the bloc allows generous opt-outs on slot rules during the pandemic.

The fight broke out following a recent newspaper interview with Carsten Spohr, the head of Germany’s largest air carrier, who implied that EU rules were forcing him to operate environmentally unfriendly flights without passengers.

Ryanair hit back on Wednesday, accusing the Lufthansa chief of making “false claims” about climate change to cover for his real aim of “eliminating competition and consumer choice”.

Ryanair also hit out at the €12bn in state support the EU has approved for Lufthansa and its Belgian, Austrian and Swiss subsidiaries during the pandemic.

“Instead of operating empty flights just so they can block slots, Lufthansa should release the seats on these flights for sale at low fares to reward the German and European taxpayers, who have subsidized it with €billions during the Covid crisis,” Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary said in a statement this week.

“Lufthansa loves crying crocodile tears about the environment when doing everything possible to protect its slots.”

A European Commission spokesman said on Thursday that “the decision to keep a flight in the air is a commercial decision” and that EU rules allow for pandemic opt-outs to deal with travel restrictions.

“We don’t see why Lufthansa would need to operate any empty flights to maintain their slots. This is simply not happening,” a senior EU official said on Thursday. “This is an unnecessary fuss.”

The official said that rather than operating empty flights, Lufthansa has actually cancelled more than a third of the flights for which it has sold tickets.

“This is not a good service to passengers,” the official said.

Normal EU rules say that airlines have to use 80pc of their slot rights to keep them for the next season, which runs from year to year.

That threshold was reduced to zero at the beginning of the pandemic and currently stands at 50pc, but will rise to 64pc for the summer season, which begins in April.

Airlines can still apply for a “justified non-use” opt-out from the rules, as The Netherlands and Austria did when they imposed Omicron-related restrictions late last year.

The row comes as the head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Willie Walsh, warned that governments have “over-reacted” to the spread of the Omicron variant, leading to a “more difficult” first quarter of 2022 than expected.

Figures published by IATA this week show that European air carriers’ November international traffic – before the Omicron variant had spread – declined 43.7pc compared to November 2019, a slight improvement on October levels. 

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