Page last updated at 12:57 GMT, Wednesday, 16 July 2008 13:57 UK

Airline denies 'ghost' plane plan

bmi aircraft
BMI said it had no policy to operate empty flights

Airline BMI has denied reports that it will fly near-empty planes after summer bookings drop off to maintain lucrative landing rights at Heathrow.

BMI's Tim Bye told the Times that fuel costs and a sales downturn would make some services "marginal", but "we have to keep flying to preserve our slots".

However, the company later said it "categorically denies" that it did or would fly empty or near-empty services. The PM said he would talk to airlines as it was "unacceptable" to fly empty.

'Without foundation'

BMI, Britain's third largest airline, reacted to the Times report by saying: "BMI categorically denies that it is its policy to operate empty or near-empty services at Heathrow.

"BMI has never adopted such a strategy and reports that it intends to do so are completely without foundation."

At Prime Minister's Questions, Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Norman Baker drew attention to Wednesday's reports and an earlier case of an airline advertising for actors to boost passenger numbers.

"Given the massive carbon emissions for which aviation is responsible, isn't this an environmental disgrace, and will you take action to prevent these ghost flights or will you cave in to the aviation industry as usual?" he asked Gordon Brown.

Mr Brown replied: "It would be clearly unacceptable if airlines flew without any passengers whatsoever simply to maintain their slots.

"We shall look at the matter that you raise, we will talk to the airlines, and I will write to you in due course."

The Times reported that the ghost flights would be operated to keep take-off and landing slots at Heathrow valued at 770 million.

Use or lose

The internationally recognised landing slot policy independently administered at Heathrow by the firm Airport Co-ordination Ltd (ACL) is known as the "use it or lose it" rule.

An airline needs to make at least 80% use of its allocation over a six-month period to preserve the entitlement or it risks seeing rivals take over the slot.

There are provisions for airlines not to use slots and still retain rights if this can be justified on the basis of "unforeseeable" circumstances.

In March it was revealed that budget airline Flybe had advertised for actors to fly between Norwich and Dublin to boost passenger numbers.

The airline took the step to avoid a 280,000 penalty charge from Norwich airport if it did not carry 15,000 passengers on the route by 31 March.

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