UPDATE 2-EU suspends aviation slots rule as coronavirus hammers airlines

(Adds EU suspending rule)

BRUSSELS, March 10 (Reuters) - The European Union will suspend a rule requiring airlines to run most of their scheduled services or else forfeit landing slots, to give carriers some breathing space as the coronavirus crisis deepens, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday.

The decision came as the world’s airlines scrambled to deal with the worsening virus epidemic and Italy’s lockdown, which have hammered passenger numbers and forced the cancellation of thousands of flights.

Von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said the suspension of the rule would do away with “ghost flights” where airlines fly almost empty planes simply to keep their slots.

“The Commission will put forward, very rapidly, legislation,” she said. “We want to make it easier for airlines to keep their airport slot even if they do not operate flights in those slots because of the declining traffic.

“This temporary measure helps our industry but it also helps our environment. It will relieve the pressure on aviation industry and in particular on smaller airline companies.”

The EU chief did not say how long the suspension of the rule would last.

Germany had on Tuesday joined calls for Brussels to relax the rules, saying that it would be harmful both environmentally and financially to persist.

“In order not to lose their slots, airlines have to fly with almost empty aircraft through the crisis,” a spokesman for the economy ministry said in a statement emailed to Reuters. (Reporting by Marine Strauss @StraussMarine in Brussels; Additional reporting by Christian Kraemer in Berlin; Editing by Philip Blenkinsop, Josephine Mason and Pravin Char)