Brussels has bowed to UK pressure over the impact of coronavirus and freed airlines to halt ‘ghost flights’ by suspending use-it-or-lose-it rules on airport landing slots.

The response came after Virgin Atlantic warned that it was being forced to fly aircraft “almost empty” to ensure it retains key take off and landing slots and transport secretary Grant Shapps intervened with an appeal to the European Commission.

The airline now wants the measures introduced swiftly to cover the entire summer in the face of a huge downturn in bookings.

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It came as Skyscanner research found that airlines are slashing fares by more than 80% in some cases due to a collapse in passenger demand.

Under existing European rules, airlines must use 80% of their allocated slots or risk losing them to a rival. Slot restrictions cover eight UK airports – Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Stansted, Luton, Birmingham, London City and Bristol.

However, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said: “The coronavirus outbreak has a major impact on the European and international aviation industry.

“We see that the situation is deteriorating on a daily basis. Traffic is expected to decline further.

“This is why the Commission will put forward, very rapidly, legislation regarding the so-called ‘airport slots’.

“We want to make it easier for airlines to keep their airport slots, even if they do not operate flights in those slots because of the declining traffic.”

She added: “This is a temporary measure and this temporary measure helps both our industry, but it also helps our environment.

“It will relieve pressure on the aviation industry, and in particular on smaller airline companies.

“But it will also decrease emissions by avoiding the so-called ‘ghost flights’ – when airlines fly almost empty planes, simply to keep their slots.

“This is just one example of a sector where help is needed and we are ready to act.”

Virgin Atlantic chef executive Shai Weiss said: “As with airlines around the world, the impact of Covid-19 on our bookings has been significant and requires a swift response, which the transport secretary has recognised.

“The European Commission indicated it is in favour of a temporary relaxation of the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ rule for flight slots at regulated airports.

“This is a positive step, but we urgently expect detail of these measures, and confirmation that alleviation will apply to all markets for the full summer season.

“Prompt publishing of the legislation will allow the UK slot co-ordinator to act, enabling Virgin Atlantic and other airlines to operate schedules more efficiently and avoid flying almost empty planes for the sake of retaining valuable slots, which in turn creates unnecessary carbon emissions.”

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of industry body Airlines UK, added: “UK airlines welcome the decision to temporarily suspend the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ rule on airport slots, but we urgently need clarity that this will apply to all markets and for the duration of the summer season.

“Once this has been confirmed we would urge the UK’s slot co-ordinator ACL to implement the measures here and without delay.

“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.”