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The European Commission has found an unlikely winger: Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary.
Normally, O’Leary chastises the Commission in salty language for obstructing competition; the Irish carrier has spent much of the past two years battling in court with the EU executive to approve pandemic bailouts of many airlines hit hard by the coronavirus, which Ryanair says has unfairly penalized carriers who have coped better with the slowdown.
But now Ryanair and Brussels have become allies against the efforts of major carriers like Lufthansa to advocate for further relaxation of EU slot rules – the lucrative take-off and landing permissions at airports. .
“We wanted to give the Commission some support,” O’Leary said on a call with POLITICO.
Lufthansa argues that Brussels rules force it to perform thousands of nearly empty flights – dubbed “ghost flights” – so as not to lose slots. Under the so-called “use it or lose it” rule, airlines are required to travel a route 50% of the time to maintain a slot. That threshold is down from an 80% pre-pandemic requirement, amended by the Commission after the air travel collapse at the start of the pandemic.
As air travel picks up, the threshold is expected to rise to 64% by the end of March. But Lufthansa wants the regulations to be relaxed instead, with Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr saying it will have to make 18,000 ‘unnecessary’ flights in January and February to keep its slots, which it says would also have a negative impact. on emissions.
This pleading is overlooked by both O’Leary and the Commission.
The CEO said the traditional carriers had already secured a favorable deal from the EU through the approval of pandemic bailouts and looser slot rules.
“And now Lufthansa is still not happy. They don’t want to operate ghost flights because, “Ohhh, the environment,” he said.
EU Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean has also spoken out against relaxing slot rules, arguing in a letter obtained by POLITICO that the current threshold is fair. The changes to the pandemic slot rule “have given airlines all the flexibility they need for almost two years now, while also ensuring adequate protection of the interests of passengers and airports.”
It also targeted Lufthansa, pointing out that data from traffic manager Eurocontrol showed that at the start of January the airline was operating more than 60% of flights compared to the same period in 2019. That’s more than that. that the existing rules require for carriers. of a slit.
“It is difficult to see why Lufthansa would need to operate the 18,000 claimed flights, representing only 5% of its total flights during the winter programming season, to protect their slot portfolio,” she wrote to the President of the European Parliament’s Transport Committee, Karima Delli. , Who had requested changes to the rules in response to requests from Lufthansa.
The current rules also allow for a “justified non-use exemption,” meaning that if a government imposes new travel restrictions, airlines would not be required to fly to and from that country to maintain their slots.
Lufthansa’s appeal was also rejected by the airport lobby.
A spokesperson for the German airline said: “Ryanair and Michael O’Leary are clearly misinformed”. The spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on Vălean’s letter, saying the airline had not seen it, but they said changing the slot rules could prevent “thousands of flights unnecessary in Europe “.
The commissioner suggested that the German carrier did not help itself.
“Lufthansa has so far presented no evidence as to where these so-called ‘unnecessary flights’ are generated just to preserve slots, nor any other operator,” Vălean wrote.
O’Leary took it a step further.
“The solution is simple: sell the seats. Shut up, stop complaining and at least allow the taxpayers who bailed you out to have some benefits by offering them cheap seats, ”he said.
Or he could ditch those slots and allow another airline to take them over.
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