July 23, 2020 / 12:02 PM / 16 days ago

Wizz Air demands end to EU slot rules waiver

FILE PHOTO: A Wizz Air Airbus A320 from Sofia, Bulgaria taxis to a gate after landing at Luton Airport after Wizz Air resumed flights today on some routes, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Luton, Britain, May 1, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Boyers

PARIS/LONDON (Reuters) - Low-cost airline Wizz Air (WIZZ.L) urged the European Union on Thursday to reinstate airport slot rules following a suspension that has allowed carriers to hold on to take-off and landing rights during the coronavirus crisis.

Under normal rules, airlines that use fewer than 80% of their scheduled slots at congested airports have to give them up for reallocation to competitors.

But as air travel ground to a halt in March, the EU agreed to suspend the “use-it-or-lose-it” requirement in response to concerns that some airlines were operating empty “ghost flights” to avoid forfeiting slots.

The demand by Wizz Air, which is seeking more slots at airports such as London Gatwick, sets up a conflict with European rivals that are pushing for the waiver to be extended through the coming winter season until March 2021.

“An extension of the waiver would be irrational and anti-competitive and would hinder rather than help the recovery of the EU aviation industry,” the Hungarian budget carrier said.

“Wizz Air is willing and able to expand,” it said. Prolonging the slots freeze “would mean Wizz is prevented from doing so by airlines with weak business models or a history of poor cost management”.

The EU executive plans to “extend the waiver for part of the 2020-2021 winter season”, Transport Commissioner Adina Valean told an EU aviation summit on Thursday, in comments passed on by her office. But Brussels will also add new conditions, Valean added, without elaborating.

While airports also oppose a blanket extension, the rest of the European airline industry is overwhelmingly demanding one through the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and lobby group Airlines for Europe (A4E) - even warning of a return to ghost flights if the waiver lapses.

Air France-KLM (AIRF.PA) boss Ben Smith, who chairs A4E, said on Wednesday that failure to extend the moratorium would force airlines to make “negative business decisions to fly these slots with losses and (with) an extremely unnecessary negative impact on the environment.”

Reporting by Laurence Frost and Sarah Young. Additional reporting by Foo Yun Chee. Editing by Barbara Lewis and Mark Potter

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