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The scandal of 'ghost flights': are empty planes haunting our skies?

As the travel industry pledges net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, news of ‘ghost flights’ has hit the headlines. Here’s everything you need to know about the Mary Celestes of the skies.

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More than 10,000 'ghost flights' flew over European skies in winter 2021/22 according to recent analysis from Greenpeace.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Sarah Barrell
Published 18 Apr 2022, 15:00 BST, Updated 19 Apr 2022, 07:43 BST

What are ‘ghost flights’? 

Empty or near-empty planes that fly scheduled routes so airlines can keep to contractual obligations. EU law says carriers must operate a percentage of flights (traditionally 80%) to retain valuable take-off and landing slots, notably at high-traffic airports: the so-called ‘use it or lose it’ rule.

How many are there? 

This supposedly rare occurrence became more frequent during pandemic lockdowns. More than 10,000 ghost flights flew over European skies in winter 2021/22 according to recent analysis from Greenpeace, while The Guardian reported that 15,000 have flown since March 2020, based on Department for Transport analysis of Civil Aviation Authority airport data.

Why does it matter? 

In October 2021, the aviation industry pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The environmental damage from ghost flights, according to Greenpeace, is ‘equivalent to the yearly emissions of more than 1.4 million cars.’

When do they fly? 

According to the European Commission (EC), they don’t. The EC temporarily suspended Europe’s airport slot rule for a short period during the pandemic, and said it hadn’t created issues for airlines during this time. It reinstated the rule in October 2021.

What does it mean for consumers?

Airlines may be denying that they run ghost flights, but they’re certainly able to operate them during travel bans: they don’t have to cancel flights even if pandemic restrictions mean their passengers can no longer travel. This has left consumers out of pocket. The EC’s Denied Boarding Regulation says that if a UK or European airline cancels a flight departing or landing within the region, it must issue passengers a refund or offer another flight. However, if the flight isn’t cancelled, consumers may miss out on refunds.

Who’s flying? 

Lufthansa, from whose data the Greenpeace figure was extrapolated to apply to all European carriers, has said that it faced the prospect of some 18,000 superfluous flights over the recent six-month winter season to retain its slots under European rules. However, a spokesperson for the carrier also said: “Unnecessary flights aren’t empty or ‘ghost’ flights. They’re scheduled flights that are poorly booked as a result of the pandemic.”

What happens if an airline loses its slots?

Airport slot rules are intended to maximise competition and keep airfares low by incentivising airlines to fly, trade or hand back unused airport slots so other airlines can fly them instead. Critics, including the likes of Willie Walsh, director of the International Air Transport Association, argue this encourages airlines to fly at low capacity or empty to keep slots.

What’s the solution?

Air France says it wants greater slot rule flexibility, while Ryanair called for airlines to sell unused seats at cheaper prices, and for the EC to force carriers to release unused slots. Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation, called for airlines “with a modern full plane to be preferred over rival carriers, who are operating with much lower load factors or older technologies.”

Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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