An almost empty British Airways passenger plane flies from Milan to London on March 5, 2020 in Milan, Italy.

Laurel Chor | Getty Images

European airlines have been running near-empty flights in order to retain valuable airport slots, drawing sharp criticism from climate activists as the coronavirus outbreak dramatically reduces passenger demand.

A so-called “use-it-or-lose-it” rule, enshrined under EU law, states airlines must fly 80% of their flights on a slot in order to safeguard their presence at major hubs for the next season.

It has led to a situation whereby many airlines are thought to be operating so-called “ghost planes” with almost no passengers onboard.

“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,” Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, told CNBC via email on Tuesday.

“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 U.K. slot co-ordinator and the European Commission need to now urgently relax the rules for the whole Summer. Common sense must prevail.”

Calls to suspend ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ rule

On Monday, U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps sent a letter to the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, urging an end to the use-it-or-lose-it rule.

He argued airlines required “temporary” relief from this law, adding it makes both “environmental and financial sense.”

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“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,” Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, told CNBC via email on Tuesday.

“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.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, the Commission is now close to agreeing a suspension of these airport slot-rules which would allow airlines to cut capacity.

London, Feb 2019: EasyJet aircraft on the hardpan having luggage loaded via a conveyor belt at Gatwick Airport London.

Alphotographic | iStock Unreleased | Getty Images

British Airways owner IAG and easyJet both told CNBC Tuesday that they support the temporary suspension of the use-it-or-lose-it rule.

“This would ensure that airlines would not fly planes half empty just to keep the slot, which is not just bad for business but also for the environment,” a spokesperson from easyJet said via email.

‘Completely unnecessary’

“It’s absurd to fly empty planes and cause planet-heating emissions that are completely unnecessary,” Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace U.K., told CNBC via email on Tuesday.

“The sensible thing to do would be to suspend the ‘use it or lose it’ rule so that airlines can keep empty planes on the ground and save many tons of CO2.”

“With or without ghost flights, the aviation industry still has a long way to go in tackling their climate problem, and regulators need to get involved, not just watch from the sidelines,” Parr said.

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As of Tuesday, the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases exceeded 115,000, with 4,087 deaths worldwide. The flu-like virus has significantly reduced passenger demand, with many airlines reporting a significant drop in load factors in recent weeks.