Updated: Apr 17
The announcement echoes through: “Flight 1046 to Brussels, now departing. Please fasten your seatbelts and await the seatbelt light before unfastening them again. We ask that all tray tables are secured and that all passengers keep their personal belongings tucked under the seat in front of them. Our flight attendants will now demonstrate the safety procedures as we gear up for takeoff”. Insert a delicate panoramic shot of an empty plane interior. This is kind of how I imagine ‘ghost flights’ in my head. A ghost flight is a commercial airplane, with no passengers aboard, operating on its regular flight routes with only the pilot and a flight attendant or two.[i] So, what can be the reason behind emitting around “90 kg CO2 per hour”[ii] into the atmosphere for no practical reason?
It’s no secret that the air travel industry has suffered substantial losses over the course of the pandemic—a global ban on travel, no matter how brief, can have devastating long-term effects. Pre-pandemic, air travel was responsible for “roughly 2.4% of global carbon pollution”[iii], and that was when it actually benefitted the public. The central issue is that airlines pay for allocated slots at airport—“governments use an arbitrary formula to allocate new slots—with half going to new airlines and half going to incumbents”[iv]. Thus without securing these expensive allocated slots for take-off and landing, completely functional airplanes have to go into storage and the slot is sold to an airline who can make use of those slots.
To maintain these valuable take-off and landing time slots at busier airports, airlines have been sending empty flights as a regular practice for years. After the financial crisis in 2008, “BMI ran countless ghost flights from Heathrow”, “Qantas did the same in 2004 while awaiting the start of a new route”[v]. This ‘use it or lose it’ system not only results in pollution for literally no reason, but disproportionately tilts the market in favour of well-established airline companies, carrying with them the promise of higher ticket prices and fewer destination choices for passengers.[vi] EU regulations dictate that “carriers must operate a certain percentage of their scheduled flights” or they will forfeit those slots—the percentage used to be 80% of scheduled flights, but has been lowered to 50% due to coronavirus.[vii] Naturally, even operating 50% of scheduled flights is challenging amid border closures and travel restrictions. Rather than lowering the percentage, the EU’s International Air Transport Association (IATA) has called to increase the percentage to 64% as of April 2022[viii].
The result? Lufthansa CEO, Carsten Spohr, announced further flight cancellations in January 2022, adding that he would have cancelled more than he had if not for the way airports allocate their slots.[ix] Spohr said “in winter, we will have to carry out 18,000 extra, unnecessary flights just to secure our takeoff and landing rights”[x]. A spokesperson for Brussel Airlines similarly reported that they would have to “carry out 3,000” of these empty flights, adding that they would rather avoid them for the sake of the environment.[xi] Belgium’s transport minister has written the European Commission “urging it to loosen the slot rules, arguing the consequences run counter to the EU’s carbon neutral ambitions”.[xii] Luckily, the United Kingdom is no longer bound by the IATA’s authority. The Airports Slot Allocation (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2021 have sprinkled in mild amendments, exchanging the word “Union” for “United Kingdom” and “Commission” for “Secretary of State”, but has yet to make any substantive changes.[xiii] There is however a UK government petition you can sign if you want to be involved in influencing the UK’s next steps: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/605749. The petition will run until 14 July 2022 and currently has 4,272 signatures (10,000 signatures receives a government response and 100,000 signatures bring the petition up for debate in Parliament).
The ghost flight phenomenon has been operating under our noses for years, in countries with adamant goals to achieve net zero. Just two weeks ago, Councillor Mark Howell suggested that keeping dogs as pets was exacerbating the climate crisis, with their 700kg of annual CO2 emissions. Ghost planes match that figure within an 8-hour flight. The logic is lost on me—we find ourselves in a world where we should be more willing to part with our pets than demand scheduled flights serve a tangible purpose beyond curtailing commercial losses.
[i] Lesh, M. ‘The EU rules creating an armada of empty ‘ghost flights’’, The Spectator (London, 9 January 2022) https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-eu-rules-creating-an-armada-of-empty-ghost-flights-. [ii] Carbon Independent, ‘Aviation’, Carbon Independent Organisation (13 September 2021) https://www.carbonindependent.org/22.html. [iii] Schultz, I, ‘Ghost Flights are Polluting the Skies Thanks to Omicron’, Gizmodo (New York, 7 January 2022) https://gizmodo.com/ghost-flights-are-polluting-the-skies-thanks-to-omicron-1848321733. [iv]Lesh (n 1). [v] ibid [vi] ibid [vii] Coffey, H. ‘EU Under Pressure After Airlines Fly Thousands of Empty ‘Ghost Flights’ to Keep Airport Slots’, The Independent (London, 11 January 2022) https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/ghost-flights-empty-eu-airport-slots-b1990670.html. [viii] ibid [ix] Schultz (n 3) [x] ibid [xi] ibid [xii] France-Presse, A. ‘EU Under Pressure on ‘Ghost Flights’, VOA News (Washington, 9 January 2022) https://www.voanews.com/a/eu-under-pressure-on-ghost-flights-/6388817.html. [xiii] The Airports Slot Allocation (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2021 No 100.