More than 100,000 “ghost flights” will fly over Europe this winter, says Greenpeace

Jan 26, 2022

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More than 100,000 ghost flights could fly around Europe this winter because of the EU’s “hypocritical” use-it-or-lose-it runway rules, Greenpeace has warned. 

Ghost flights are fast becoming one of the travel industry’s hottest controversies, as pandemic-stricken airlines fight to hang on to valuable runway slots by sending empty planes into the sky. 

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Today a report by Greenpeace claimed that this winter, they will needlessly pump up to 2.1 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – equal to what 1.4 million cars discharge in a year. 

Related: What are ‘ghost flights’ and why are they causing so much uproar now?

“The EU Commission requiring airlines to fly empty planes to meet an arbitrary quota is not only polluting but extremely hypocritical given their climate rhetoric,” Greenpeace spokesperson Herwig Schuster told The Guardian. “Transport emissions are skyrocketing. It would be irresponsible of the EU to not take the low-hanging fruit of ending ghost flights and banning short-haul flights where there’s a reasonable train connection.”

Before the pandemic, British airports were beholden to the 80:20 runway rule, requiring airlines to fulfil a minimum of 80% of their allocated take-off and landing slots or be forced to hand them back. 

Related: Could ‘use it or lose it’ slot rule change kick-start UK travel again? Airlines are divided

But as COVID-19 brought the travel industry to its knees, that baseline was lowered to 50% to help struggling carriers. The short-haul sector, however, has recovered faster than its long-haul counterpart as the world gradually begins to open back up.  

This week, the threshold was raised to a halfway house of 70% to appease the interests of both expanding short-haul carriers eager to scoop up more slots and legacy airlines desperate not to lose theirs. 

Prime-time runway slots, after all, are one of an airline’s most valuable assets and can be traded for tens of millions of pounds.

The move has been met with anger among environmental campaigners who say the hike means more ghost flights will be flown to maintain the runway slot status quo. 

Lufthansa CEO, Carsten Spohr revealed recently that the airline will be forced to send up to 18,000 “extra, unnecessary flights” into the air to meet the new rules, and demanded that the EU issues the same sort of “climate-friendly exemptions” seen in other parts of the world. 

“This damages the climate and is exactly the opposite of what the EU Commission wants to achieve with its ‘Fit for 55’ program,” he told Frankfurter Allgemeine.

Related: London Heathrow is home to some of the most expensive airport slots on earth

Greenpeace estimates that an average 90-minute flight of a 200-seater plane (covering 800 to 1,000km) emits a minimum of 20 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. 

It then applied Lufthansa’s proportion of ghost flights to other European airlines based on the German carrier’s 17% market share to come up with the 2.1 million-ton figure. 

Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation, described Greenpeace’s research as “spot on”, and called for a radical overhaul of the rules to reward efficiency.

“[We need] some sort of efficiency metric as the basis for allocating slots that would allow an operator with a modern full plane to be preferred over rival carriers, who are operating with much lower load factors or older technologies,” he told The Guardian.

Related: The basics of offsetting the carbon emissions from your flights

The European Commission, however, denies ghost flights are an issue, laying the blame squarely on the airlines themselves. 

“Empty flights or “ghost flights” are bad for the economy and bad for the environment,” said E.C. spokesperson Stefan De Keersmaecker. “That is why the Commission developed measures from the start of the pandemic to avoid such flights. Deciding to operate routes or not is a commercial decision by the airline company and not a result of EU rules.”

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary last week said the use-it-or-lose-it rules favour long-haul legacy airlines and called for carriers who can’t fill their flights to either lower their prices or hand over the slots to other airlines who can. “Sell these seats at low fares, and help accelerate the recovery of short and long haul air travel to and from Europe,” he said. 

A parliamentary petition calling for legislation to end ghost flights has amassed more than 6,000 signatures. 

Featured image by Getty

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