Planes ‘fly empty’ to keep slots at Heathrow


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Mar 5, 2006
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Ghost flights to secure multimillion-pound rights

Britain’s third-largest airline, bmi, will fly near-empty aircraft from this autumn to preserve multimillion-pound take-off and landing slots, The Times has learnt.

The rise in fuel prices and an expected slump in passenger numbers after the summer mean that many airlines will have to cancel flights, but bmi does not want to lose its coveted slots at Heathrow, which are valued at £770 million.

Airline executives are bracing themselves for their toughest winter yet as the credit crunch forces passengers to cut back on air travel and fuel prices continue to drive up costs.

The decision by bmi to fly “ghost flights” - short-haul trips with only a handful of passengers - is one of a series of plans being drawn up by airlines. Senior industry figures admit that other carriers will cancel domestic flights at short notice and gave warning of chaos ahead for business travellers. Rather than withdrawing from uneconomic routes, the tactic of cancelling individual flights is another way of retaining landing slots.


Flybe, an Exeter-based airline, has already advertised for actors to fly between Norwich and Dublin to boost passenger numbers. The airline came up with the idea when faced with the prospect of losing £280,000 because it had not met a passenger target imposed by Norwich international airport as part of a commercial deal.

Tim Bye, deputy chief executive of bmi, told The Times that his airline would prefer to cancel uneconomic flights, typically those in the middle of the day from London to the North of England and Scotland, but “we have to fly that service eight out of ten times”. Under “use-it-or-lose-it” rules that govern the allocation of the much-sought-after slots at Heathrow, airlines must use their scheduled slots 80 per cent of the time - or forfeit them.

Mr Bye said: “We have to keep flying to preserve our slots. What might have been a marginal service in most winters will become even worse, partly because of the price of fuel and partly because of the drop-off in demand that the general economic cycle will bring. Economic pressures will drive the demand down even more than airlines would normally expect.”

Bmi owns 11 per cent of Heathrow’s take-off slots, second only to the 41 per cent held by British Airways and more than ****** Atlantic. Deloitte, the financial services firm, values a peak-time return slot at £25 million to £30 million.

According to Mr Bye, bmi will not be the only airline to fly aircraft that it would rather keep on the ground this winter. “This will affect airlines across the board,” he said. “Everybody is feeling it.

“The demand [for airline seats] will drop off at a greater rate than ever before during the winter. Some will be better placed than others to weather it. But, fundamentally, I would be surprised if more than a handful will be confident enough to operate all services at a profitable level.”

Peter Morrisroe, the managing director of Airport Coordination, the company that is responsible for the allocation of slots at British airports, said: “If an airline wants to retain the rights to its slots, it is essential it complies with the use-it-or-lose-it rule.”

Environmentalists reacted furiously to bmi’s decision. Richard Dyer, an aviation campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Flying near-empty planes across Britain simply to preserve airport take-off slots would be environmental vandalism. The Government must intervene to prevent this kind of gratuitous climate wrecking from taking place – and stand firm on its plans to switch to an aviation tax based on planes, not passengers.”

Asked if bmi could switch to smaller aircraft when bookings were low, Mr Bye said: “We can carry on with the same aircraft even if they are too big for the demand, or downsize so it is cheaper to fly the aircraft. But this is not easy, every flight is configured.”

Bmi, which operates 1,700 flights per week over a network of 36 airports, later confirmed that it would not be operating “empty” flights in order to protect Heathrow slots.

The company, which flies to the United States from Manchester airport, uses its Heathrow slots primarily for flights to European and Middle Eastern destinations.

British Airways said at its annual meeting yesterday that it would not cut transatlantic flights to protect its Heathrow slots, despite falling ticket sales in the United States. It is also cutting capacity by 3 to 5 per cent this winter. BA’s Heathrow slots are valued at about £2 billion.

Theresa Villiers, the Shadow Transport Secretary, said: “It is imperative that the system for running slots does nothing to push the airlines into flying empty planes. Besides damaging the environment, it makes absolutely no economic sense.”

Douglas McNeill, a transport analyst at Blue Oar, a City stockbroking firm, said that there would be 10 per cent fewer airline seats available this winter as airlines ground aircraft, reduce numbers of flights and in some cases sell off planes.

He said: “Airlines ought to think twice about this practice [of flying near-empty planes] at a time when the fuel required to put a plane in the air is ruinously expensive and the industry as a whole is under scrutiny for its environmental impact.”

Sky high

£60,000 - cost of running a flight from Heathrow to Edinburgh (approx)

1,303 - flights take off and land on an average day at Heathrow

£30m - value of a peak-time Heathrow return slot, according to Deloitte

11% - proportion of slots at Heathrow held by bmi

Source: Times database