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Airlines in Europe say they are flying near-empty planes as omicron derails travel. They say E.U. rules mean they can’t stop.

Lufthansa canceled 33,000 trips, or 10 percent of its winter flights, due to low demand. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — As the omicron variant upends travel plans around the world, airlines say strict European Union regulations are forcing them to fly near-empty flights, which are unnecessary and environmentally harmful, that they argue they need to fly to save their long-term takeoff and landing slots at European airports.

Airlines must use a certain percentage of their designated slots at airports to hold on to them. But low demand during the pandemic has led airlines to fly near-empty flights, often known as “ghost flights,” to meet the requirements. Lufthansa, a large German airline, said it canceled 33,000 trips, or 10 percent of its winter flights, due to low demand but still anticipates having to fly 18,000 “poorly booked” flights to secure its slots.

The E.U. waived these requirements at the start of the pandemic but partially reinstated them last year. Before the pandemic, airlines needed to use 80 percent of their takeoff and landing slots to keep them. Last year, the E.U. said airlines need to use at least 50 percent of them and allowed them to apply for exceptions if they need to go below that threshold.

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But airlines and environmental groups say it is not enough and the rules for exemptions are unclear. They want the E.U. to scrap the thresholds all together, at least during the pandemic. The requirement is scheduled to increase to 64 percent in the spring.

The American Federal Aviation Administration has minimum slot requirements at three airports — Kennedy and La Guardia airports in New York and Reagan National Airport in Washington — and waived the requirements through March for international flights.

“We would rather cancel them, and they should also be avoided for the sake of the environment,” Maaike Andries, spokesperson for Brussels Airlines, which is owned by Lufthansa, told the Brussels Times, adding that she anticipates the airline needing to cancel 3,000 flights from now until March.

E.U. officials have defended their policies and say they need to strike a balance between protecting consumers and boosting a hampered airline industry. If airlines could cancel flights with impunity, for example, they would be able to frequently rebook passengers on flights on different days to maximize profits.

A senior European Commission official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue publicly, told reporters last week that it had no evidence of airlines, including Lufthansa, needing to fly “ghost flights” during the omicron wave and provided statistics showing that air traffic in the first days of January was around 77 percent of what it was before the pandemic and is expected to go up.

During the pandemic, the E.U. has provided the industry tens of billions of dollars in bailout money. “As required, the protection of historic slots must be balanced with the need to ensure that airport capacity is used in a pro competitive way for the benefit of all consumers,” E.U. spokesman Daniel Ferrie told reporters.

Magdalena Heuwieser, spokesperson for Stay Grounded, a network of more than 170 organizations that advocates for alternatives to air travel, argued that the E.U. should encourage fewer flights to take off rather than create rules that incentivize airlines to fly more planes.

She said it could also encourage airlines to lower airfares to get more people on board, something environmental groups have long advocated against, saying planes carry large carbon footprints and should only be used if trains or other modes are not feasible.

“In times of climate crisis, you cannot afford any unnecessary flights,” Heuwieser said.

Ryanair, a large European budget airline, has said its low-cost fares have spared them from some of the challenges that other airlines have faced during the pandemic, arguing it is unnecessary to fly “ghost flights” and called on Lufthansa to lower its prices to get more people on board.

“The solution to Lufthansa’s ‘ghost flights’ problem is a simple one, just sell these seats to consumers,” Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, said in a statement last week. “If Lufthansa really needs to operate these flights, then they should be required to sell these seats to the public at low fares.”

Quentin Ariès contributed to this report.

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