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All you need to know about ghost flights

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An airline operates a “ghost flight” by running a regularly scheduled route with few to no passengers onboard (less than 10% of capacity).

This is usually done to ensure that airlines can meet their contractual responsibilities and avoid losing one of their most valuable assets – airport slots. Since the beginning of the epidemic, the general public has become accustomed to hearing the phrase “ghost flight” mentioned in passing in news stories, typically followed by general indignation at their presence.

But what are they, why do they occur, are they necessary, and why do they irritate people? A ghost flight occurs when an airline runs a plane on a regularly scheduled route with few to no passengers on board (less than 10% of capacity). A slot is the authorization provided by an airport to an airline to take off or land at a certain time.

They are required to control traffic and capacity in crowded and controlled airports, and they may be difficult to get as well as expensive. Slots are assigned, or rather, kept, according to a “use it or lose it” rule. Under normal conditions, if an airline does not use at least 80% of its slot, the airport may offer it to another carrier the next season.

This was cut to 50% during the pandemic to avoid putting too much pressure on airlines to operate flights in an untenable market. However, after limits were eased, it was restored to 70% of slot use in March of this year.

The European Union has decided on a 75/25 rule for winter 2022. According to data published in September, there have been over 5,000 ghost flights entering or departing from the UK’s eight Level 3 “coordinated” airports since 2019. Meanwhile, Greenpeace calculated that 100,000 phantom planes flew over Europe during the previous winter alone.

These phantom flights will have produced around 2.1 million tonnes of CO2, which is comparable to the annual emissions of more than 1.4 million automobiles. However, there are no specific figures to determine the impact.

Last winter’s phantom flight issue sparked some back-and-forth between two big European airline executives. While Spohr seems to believe this was a genuine issue, Ryanair Group CEO Michael O’Leary appears to believe he had the solution to all of Lufthansa’s difficulties. He claimed that if Lufthansa had “simply sold these tickets to consumers,” it would have been straightforward to avoid flying 18,000 unneeded trips.

The media quotes him as saying, “Lufthansa enjoys screaming crocodile tears about the environment while doing all imaginable to safeguard its slots.”

While offering lower tickets would end up filling flights, the notion was struck down by Lufthansa’s CEO, who instead thinks that Ryanair’s €5 rates are “irresponsible”.

Aside from feuds, the true environmental impact of phantom flights is unknown. While the market has improved tremendously and airlines have less need to operate empty flights, they nevertheless occur often two years later.  This shows that they may have evolved into a long-term issue that aviation as a whole must address, with airlines and airports cooperating for the greater good rather than just for profit.

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