Paul Maynard was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport from July 2019 to February 2020. He is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

Last month, UK airlines became the first in the world to commit to achieving net zero by 2050, the first aviation sector in the world to do so.  Yet airlines are today being forced to fly nearly empty planes, burning fuel and emitting carbon unnecessarily.  The Government needs to act now – so that airlines can do the sensible thing and cancel and consolidate their empty flights.

The outbreak of Coronavirus has led to a drop in demand for travel of up to 50 per cent compared to March 2019, placing a huge burden on airlines who have planned for full planes.  Demand for travel has fallen across the globe – and not just in affected countries such as China and Italy – and worried customers are cancelling bookings.  IATA, the industry body, predicts that globally airlines could lose up to $113 billion dollars in revenue as a result.

The problem airlines face is that they must abide by a ‘use it or lose it rule’, which is designed to make sure they use their airport ‘slots’ in the most efficient way or have them taken away. A slot is a window of time allocated to airlines giving them permission to take-off or land from an airport. Under the rules, they must use their slots 80 per cent of the time, regardless of how full their aircraft are.

Of course, we need to reform the outdated system of slot allocation anyway – and the fact we can is one more Brexit dividend – and that needs to occur however we choose to address issues of airport expansion. It’s a key tool for enabling Government to determine how it chooses to deploy scarce air capacity, especially if seeking to drive forward that Global Britain agenda.

In normal times airlines can manage, carefully predicting demand and planning their schedules accordingly.  But during an unexpected and sudden crisis like the COVID-19 outbreak the rule is having the opposite effect than intended, forcing airlines to fly empty planes.

Airlines could simply cancel their empty flights and risk losing their previous airport slots. But this would have a devastating impact on their businesses at a time when they are facing their biggest crisis since 9/11.  Without these slots, they can’t plan services or sell tickets for later this year or next. If they can’t sell tickets, they would quickly run out of cash.

One UK airline said it is being forced to operate 32 flights between now and March 29, or risk losing their airport slots. This is equivalent to 5,000 empty seats being flown over UK skies.

Common sense must prevail.  The ‘use it or lose it rule’ should be relaxed so that airlines can consolidate services where there aren’t enough passengers.  It has prevailed before; the rules were relaxed following 9/11, the SARS outbreak in 2003, when demand for travel also fell dramatically.

Other countries have already seen sense. Although the rules are set by the EU, in Hungary and Croatia airlines have been given assurances that taking the sensible decisions to cancel flights won’t see them lose their all-important slots.

We need the UK to follow suit, and quickly, and it’s encouraging that the Transport Secretary has written to the independent slot coordinator, ACL, to urge them to act.  Such a move would help airlines and their employees, with many having agreed to pay cuts and unpaid leave to help cut their costs.  But it would also help airlines deliver on their commitment to cut unnecessary carbon emissions, a priority which will remain long after this crisis is forgotten.