The Civil Aviation Authority has recently revealed that almost 15,000 “ghost flights” departed from 32 UK airports between March 2020 and September 2021.
With around 4,910 planes Heathrow made the top of the list, followed by Aberdeen, Manchester and Stansted, at an overall average of 720 per month. According to City A.M. estimates, that would lead to a total of 300,000 tonnes of CO2 emitted.
Data obtained by the Guardian late last month also revealed that between October and December 2021 an average of 500 empty flights departed from the UK.
Ghost flights, flights with either no passengers or with less than 10 per cent capacity, were used by UK and EU companies for various operational reasons, including retaining their slots under aviation rules.
Francesco Ragni, aviation professor at Buckinghamshire New University, explained airlines operate ghost flights mainly due to the costs of non running operations.
He told City A.M. today: “They are doing it for mere business reasons: the cost of running a number of flights with no passengers is lower than the cost associated with non-flying, most of all the opportunity costs derived from losing precious airport slots.”
“Airlines have always run ‘ghost flights’ for various operational reasons, but never at this gigantic scale.”Francesco Ragni, aviation professor at Buckinghamshire New University
Introduced to foster healthy market competition, UK and EU carriers were forced to use their airport slots 80 per cent of the time to retain them the next year.
But when Covid hit, both the UK Government and the European Commission decided to scrap the regulation altogether. As the industry started to get back on its feet, the UK increased its slot rule to 70 per cent while the EU went up to 64.
Airport slots and consequently ghost flights have in the last few months become a topic of debate between legacy and low-cost carriers.
The debacle originated in December when Lufthansa’s boss Carsten Spohr complained about having to operate 18,000 “extra, unnecessary flights just to secure our take-off and landing rights.”
The German executive’s comments sparked outrage among low-cost airlines, who accused bigger airlines of “crying crocodile tears.”
“If Lufthansa doesn’t want to operate ‘ghost flights’ to protect its slots, then simply sell these seats at low fares, and help accelerate the recovery of short and long haul air travel to and from Europe,” said Ryanair’s boss Michael O’Leary a few weeks later.
If operating ghost flights makes economic sense for airlines, the environmental damage caused is substantial.
A report published in January by Greenpeace predicted that this winter over 100,000 ghost flights would transit through Europe, emitting around 2.1 million tonnes of CO2 – the equivalent of the yearly emissions made by 1.4 million cars.
According to Transport and Environment’s UK policy manager Matt Finch, the problem is that all flights, not just ghost flights, consume fuel.
“Whether the planes are 90% full or 90% empty, the problem is they burn fossil fuel when flying, and airlines pay no tax on that fuel – unlike every single British motorist that is forced to pay,” he told City A.M. “Slot regulation and ghost flights are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively minor issues, but airlines and government could and should do more to avoid them.”