Slots at European airports are hard to come by -- so hard that airlines are flying thousands of empty airplanes in order to secure their takeoff and landing places. This is because airlines have to use 50% of their slots in order to keep them, but that’s becoming tricky with lower bookings due to the Oricon variant. Ergo, there will be a lot of empty flights and ghost planes in the coming months.
Before the pandemic, ghost flights were very rare, though not unheard of. Such flights, with no passengers (but still burning a lot of fossil fuels), became much familiar at the start of the pandemic -- and may stick around a bit more. Ghost flights have become a hot topic, especially in Europe.
Most recently, Lufthansa, one of Europe’s largest aviation companies, flew 18,000 empty flights just to keep its take-off and landing rights at a major airport, Belgian news site The Bulletin reported. CEO Carsten Spohr said the company cancelled more flights than expected due to Omicron and had to fly planes empty just to not lose its slots.
Lufthansa isn't alone in this, and several other companies are reporting similar woes. Maaike Andries, a spokesperson for Brussels Airlines, told the Brussels Times that the company will have to carry out 3,000 ghost flights from now until March, mainly within Europe. “We would rather cancel them, and they should also be avoided for the sake of the environment,” Andriies added.
Slots at airports are managed based on guidelines from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Airlines make their request before each summer and winter season and an independent slot coordinator does the allocation. Usual rules for slots allocation says a company must use at least 80% of it slots so not to lose them to another carrier.
The US and the EU suspended this rule in March 2020 to alleviate pressure on companies to fly their planes almost or entirely empty during the peak of the pandemic. Instead, a 50% threshold was set until the end of March 2022 – which would be extended to the end of the summer, according to the Brussels Times. But even this 50% threshold is proving hard to sustain.
However, many have disputed these claims and instead suggest it is because of the airlines' faulty organization.
“A few airlines are claiming they are forced to run high volumes of empty flights in order to retain airport slot usage rights. There is absolutely no reason why this should be the reality,” Olivier Jankovec, head of the airport trade body Airports Council International (ACI) Europe, said in a statement, contesting European airlines’ claims.
The environmental burden
For airlines, the current situation is not just an economic headache but also an environmental embarrassment. Air travel is very damaging in terms of the climate crisis, responsible for about 2.5% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The sector wasn’t part of the Paris Agreement on climate change to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.
There are big inequalities in how much people fly, with a small percentage of the population flying a lot and a larger one not flying at all -- and this shows in greenhouse gas emissions. A study in 2020 found that a group of wealthy frequent flyers that represents only 1% of the world’s population generates more than half of the total aviation emissions. In 2018, only 4% of the population traveled abroad.
Last year, the aviation industry adopted a long-term climate goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – in line with the Paris Agreement, but slower than many hoped. The sector said the goal will be met through a combination of climate initiatives, including new aircraft technologies such as hydrogen, improvements in operational efficiency, and increased use of sustainable aviation fuel. Ghost planes, however, are anything but sustainable.