Virgin Atlantic has been forced to run some flights almost empty after bookings were hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

The airline is operating flights to try to retain take-off and landing slots at major airports such as Heathrow.

Take-off and landing slots have to be forfeited if flights are not operated under European law.

The European Commission said it “will put forward targeted legislation to temporarily alleviate airlines from their airport slot usage obligations under EU law”.

Shai Weiss, Virgin Atlantic chief executive, commented: “The European Commission today 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.”

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Transport secretary Grant Shapps has written to Brussels calling for for rules on slot allocation to be relaxed during the outbreak.

Flight demand drops amid coronavirus

Weiss said: “Passenger demand for air travel has dramatically fallen due to Covid-19 and in some instances we are being forced to fly almost empty planes or lose our valuable slots.

“In the aftermath of 9/11 and following the outbreak of SARS, slot rules were quickly relaxed.

“Yet today, where the demand impact is greater, we only see short-term alleviation on slots used to fly to China and Hong Kong.

“Given the almost unprecedented impact on global passenger demand, the UK slot co-ordinator and the European Commission need to now urgently relax the rules for the whole summer. Common sense must prevail.”

One unnamed UK carrier has reportedly said it will have to operate 32 flights over the next two weeks with only 40% of aircraft occupied unless the rules change. That would leave more than 5,000 seats empty.

Under the ‘use it or lose it’ rule, slots have to be used at least 80% of the time. If an airline fails to reach that threshold, the slots are put back into a pool and allocated to other carriers.

Shapps called on the European Commission to introduce “practical and proportionate measures” to address the situation, possibly including “flexibility with the 80% threshold, implemented on a market-by-market basis or more broadly”.

The body directly responsible for slot allocation in the UK, Airport Co-ordination Limited, has joined other organisations from across Europe in calling for the ‘use it or lose it’  rule to be suspended from mid-February until the end of June.

Airline cancellations and schedule changes

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the industry body Airlines UK, said: “The impact of coronavirus on demand has meant that airlines are having to cancel some routes and re-think their schedules.

“However, the ‘use it or lose it’ rule on airport slots – an airline’s right to take-off from a certain airport at a certain time – means that carriers are being forced to fly half-empty planes or risk losing that take-off slot in future, seriously affecting their ability to plan ahead.

“It makes no sense whatsoever under these unique and challenging circumstances to force airlines to fly empty aircraft, wasting money and fuel and creating carbon emissions.

“We urgently need a temporary suspension of the rule – as happened during the financial crisis – to allow airlines to respond to demand and use their aircraft efficiently.”

Iata last week called on regulators to suspend rules governing airlines’ use of airport slots this summer due to the “extraordinary circumstances” of the coronavirus outbreak.