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Coronavirus: EU moves to stop 'ghost flights' amid COVID-19 turbulence

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a press statement at the Berlaymont building in Brussels on March 10, 2020.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a press statement at the Berlaymont building in Brussels on March 10, 2020.   -   Copyright  KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP or licensors
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Brussels wants to relax rules to stop "ghost flights" and help airlines struggling to cope with plummeting demand caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Flybe, Europe’s largest regional airline, collapsed last week citing COVID-19 as the straw that broke the camel's back.

Today, Norwegian Airlines announced it would cancel 3,000 flights over the next three months and begin "temporary layoffs" due to coronavirus.

The European Commission announced it wants to put forward legislation that we see rules around airport slots relaxed.

At the moment if airlines don't use 80% of their allocated slots at an airport, they face losing them to another operator. This means it is arguably still worth the airline operating the flight, even if it is empty or has very few passengers.

"The Commission will rapidly put forward legislation regarding airport slots", European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday.

"We want it to be easier for airlines to keep their airport slots even if they don't operate flights in these slots because of decreasing traffic", she added. "This is a temporary measure, it helps both our industry and our environment."

Norwegian Airlines, who announced measures to cope with falling demand, said earlier it was in favour of action on airport slots.

"This is a critical time for the aviation industry, including us at Norwegian. We encourage the authorities to immediately implement measures to imminently reduce the financial burden on the airlines in order to protect crucial infrastructure and jobs," said Norwegian Airlines CEO Jacob Schram.

Swiss International Airlines are also in favour.

"We would welcome a targeted suspension of the present slot regulations that would release airlines from having to operate empty flights just to retain their landing and takeoff rights," Michael Stief, a spokesman for the airline, told Euronews.

The current system in which airlines continue to fly empty planes "makes no sense at all in economic or ecological terms", Stief added.

The International Air Transport Association and the European Airport Coordinators Association have called for a suspension of the rule that stipulates airlines must use at least 80% of their airport slots or face losing them.

The measure, like any EU legislation, will have to be approved by the European Parliament and EU member countries.

"This will relieve the pressure on the aviation industry, especially on smaller companies," Von der Leyen said. "But it will also lower CO2 emissions by avoiding 'ghost flights', in which airlines fly empty planes to keep their slots."

The EU has taken similar measures in the past, during the SARS epidemic in 2003 and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.