“Ghost flights” wreak havoc on the environment for no good reason

When you see an airplane flying above you, you probably imagine that it is full of passengers – or, at least, partially. But it turns out that’s not always the case. Around the world, thousands of flights known as ‘ghost flights’ take place every year with no one on board – the result of pre-pandemic regulations that require carriers to perform a minimum number of their scheduled flights or to risk to lose key slots at airports.

In the European Union, this policy is newly reviewed after airlines admitted to operating ghost flights on a regular basis. The Lufthansa Group – the parent company of several regional carriers including Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Eurowings, Lufthansa and Swiss International Airlines – has carried out 18,000 flights without a single passenger on board this winter alone.

The reason for that: they sort of have to do it. Under current EU regulations, airports in the region have a “use it or lose it” policy for take-off and landing slots. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, carriers were required to perform at least 80% of their scheduled flights. Failure to do so would run the risk of an airline losing the reserved seats, which are essential to meet its schedule. For airports, the logistics of scheduling hundreds of flights each day means there is no time to waste with an airline wasting slots that could otherwise be used.

The EU lowered those requirements when the pandemic hit and air travel came to a screeching halt, but it has not completely rescinded the regulations. Instead, he reduce the “use it” level to 50% – which is still quite high, given that air transport was down 60% worldwide, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization. So rather than resigning themselves to the “lose it” fate, carriers sent planes en route with barely a passenger on board; burn fossil fuels and create carbon emissions for no other reason than to maintain the right to continue to do so.

It’s not just Europe that has a sky full of empty planes, either. In the United States, a similar policy requires carriers to adhere to 80% of their scheduled take-offs and landings. This policy was waived in October 2020, but it appears the airlines have nonetheless moved their empty planes across the country. A report from the Energy Trade publication E&E news found that while the number of passengers at the end of 2020 had decreased by 96% compared to the previous year, airlines had reduced the number of flights by only 58% during the same period, suggesting that many planes were traveling with few or no passengers on board.

The EU is currently exploring the possibility of further refining its ‘use it or lose it’ rule, through The independent, with industry groups looking for more flexibility to prevent these unnecessary thefts from occurring. For airlines, the motivation is financial: fuel is expensive, and doing these flights without a single ticket sold costs them money. But these thefts also harm the planet. Air transport is responsible for about 2.5% of our global carbon emissions, and burning fuel only to meet obsolete and arbitrary demands does not help anyone.

Some air travel is necessary, or at least understandable, and many airlines have pledged they will try to minimize their environmental impact (although this has been more talk than action so far). At the end of the day, we’re better served by eliminating unnecessary theft, pandemic or not. To this end, a number of EU countries have bans proposed on short-haul flights where rail alternatives are available. It’s a good start. The same goes for suppressing ghost flights, lest we be haunted by these unnecessary practices.

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