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Ghost Plane

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  • 2.1 Ghost Planes List

In 1997, eyewitnesses from the eastern USA claimed they saw a single-engine aeroplane crash. But when the coast guard searched the waters off Connecticut, they could not find any wreckage or bodies. Also none of the airports reported any planes missing. The Dark Peak area of Derbyshire, England has been the location of many sightings of alleged ghost planes, often described as a WWII-era Douglas C-47 Skytrain.

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Ghost Planes List [ ]

  • The Derbyshire Ghost Plane
  • The LV-MLO from Mexico
  • The Plane with skeletons on board
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A ghost plane flying at night

  • 3 Huggy Wuggy

The unsolved mystery of the 1999 'ghost flight' accident

To this day, nobody knows why the small jet lost contact minutes after takeoff and crashed down to earth, four and a half hours later..

 Learjet 35 flying in the sky (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

So, what happened to the crew?

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  • Airport & ATM

Ghost flights are a phantom problem

ghost flight list

A ghost flight has no formal definition but is generally considered to be a flight that operates on less than 10% passenger capacity.

With aviation’s environmental footprint under close scrutiny, it is understandable that the issue of such flights has been getting attention. But how bad is the problem?

One report in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in September 2022 said that 5,000 “empty”, and 35,000 flights with less than 10% occupancy, had flown in the United Kingdom since 2019.

The story had significant flaws, however. Firstly, this period covered the pandemic, which was completely unrepresentative of a normal air transport market. Secondly, no context was given around the numbers. 40,000 sounds a lot, but in the context of the 4,566,382 flights that took place in the United Kingdom over that period—even during the unprecedented COVID-19 collapse in traffic—that comprises less than 1% of all flights.

Of course, any flight that takes place almost empty is bad for the environment and bad for airline finances. But precisely for these reasons, airlines don’t operate ghost flights without cause. The analysis in the Guardian failed to explain that many of these flights were cargo flights, carrying vital supplies, including vaccines and personal protective equipment, during the pandemic. The cargo demand and humanitarian need justified the operation of certain flights, even with low passenger load factors.

Similarly, there were a number of repatriation flights, or flights where passenger numbers were deliberately restricted to comply with COVID regulations set by governments. Additionally, there are always some flights to move aircraft to maintenance facilities or, as was the case during the pandemic, fly a significant number into storage.

Flights to protect slots?

Were any of these flights simply slot blocking? The 80-20 ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ rule was obviously not designed to work during a 95% collapse in demand, and the slot rules were cited as a potential cause of some flights having to operate unnecessarily in Europe.

But this was not the case in the United Kingdom, where the slot rules were suspended. There was a risk that some unnecessary flights could happen in the EU because the European Commission was too quick to restore higher slot use rates. However, for the most part during the pandemic, the slot rules were just about flexible enough that ghost flights were not a major issue.

When asked, IATA Director General Willie Walsh was unequivocal: “I’m not aware of any airline company that I’ve worked with deliberately operating an empty flight simply to maintain a slot.”

The bigger picture

The ghost flights non-story has, however, raised important questions that need to be answered on slot allocation rules. The European Union is looking again at its Slot Regulation, with a consultation in place leading to a potential revision of the rules in 2023.

Although the revision is focusing on wider issues of competition, accessibility, and capacity, the role of slot rules in promoting greener flying is also in the mix. In addition to international efforts to reach net-zero carbon emissions, the European Union has instigated its own initiatives through the EU Green Deal.

Some politicians erroneously believe the slot system is creating ghost flights or that the slot process should be used as part of the Green Deal to prioritize the use of quieter or more fuel-efficient aircraft. Aviation is committed to exploring a multitude of options for reaching net-zero CO2, but airlines are united in their view that slot allocation decisions linked to the environment will not help the industry achieve its global sustainability objectives.

“The pandemic was an exceptional period and extrapolating lessons or making policy changes based on the industry’s activities during this time would be a huge category error,” says Lara Maughan, IATA’s Head of Worldwide Airport Slots. “Fiddling with the slot process to try to promote greener flying sounds positive in theory, but in practice it would make the slot process even more complicated while having minimal environmental gain. Trying to micro-manage slots may even have a detrimental environmental impact.”

Part of the reason for this is the globally coordinated nature of the slot system. Airlines operating between two slot-coordinated airports must be able to work to a harmonized system of rules to best match demand with their planned schedule. If one country’s rules insist on operating the slot with a certain aircraft (for example for environmental reasons), then the airline may have to prioritise a non-optimal plane for that route, regardless of volume of demand—for example a narrowbody plane over a widebody. This will affect consumer access and choice, and potentially impact another route that would have benefitted from that aircraft choice.

Any attempt to micro-manage the process at a handful of global, slot-constrained airports will only displace aircraft elsewhere, making no overall improvement to emissions and negatively affecting the benefits of aviation connectivity for travelers and the economy.

More flexibility, not less

By far the best way to ensure that slots are used as efficiently as possible is to give airlines more flexibility, not less. This is particularly true during periods of crisis or demand shocks. Coordinators should be able to react with alternative and more flexible approaches. The value of the Worldwide Airport Slot Board’s recommendations for managing slots during COVID was recognised by regulators and adopted worldwide by many governments. The answer in Europe is for the revision of the slot process to align more closely with the Worldwide Airport Slot Guidelines and to increase the resilience of the system.

Prior to the pandemic, the slot system was delivering ever-more efficient use of capacity, while increasing consumer choice and ensuring reliable schedules. Far from ghost flights being an issue, the overall efficiency of air transport was improving year on year, with global passenger load factors reaching an all-time high of 83% (85% in Europe) in 2019. Moreover, after the pandemic lows, load factors have quickly rebounded, with Europe reaching 85% again in September 2022.

In terms of sustainability, the best way to tackle industry emissions is at source—from the engine. That is why the industry is focused on reducing CO2 through sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), radical new zero-emissions technologies, and reducing distance flown through more efficient air traffic management. Other out-of-sector solutions to reduce emissions, such as offsetting and carbon capture, are also important.

It is the industry’s hope and expectation that European politicians will focus on delivering the Single European Sky, which would generate up to 10% emissions savings, and promoting the Fit for 55 legislation to increase production of SAF.

“Regulators should ensure that the slot system sticks to what it does best—maximizing efficient use of scarce airport capacity and giving consumers and airlines the best balance of reliability and choice,” concludes Maughan. “Trying to use the slot system to deliver a theoretical marginal emissions gain threatens to upend the traditional purpose of the slots system and cause more harm than good.”

Credit | primeimages / iStock

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Why ghost flights operate remains unclear.

Revealed: 5,000 empty ‘ghost flights’ in UK since 2019, data shows

Exclusive : A further 35,000 flights have operated almost empty, with climate campaigners calling the revelations ‘shocking’

More than 5,000 completely empty passenger flights have flown to or from UK airports since 2019, the Guardian can reveal.

A further 35,000 commercial flights have operated almost empty since 2019, with fewer than 10% of seats filled, according to analysis of data from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). This makes a total of about 40,000 “ghost flights”.

In one quarter, for example, 62 empty planes left Luton airport for Poland, while in another, Heathrow saw 663 almost empty flights going to and from the US. Both quarters were during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Air travel results in more carbon emissions an hour than any other consumer activity and is dominated by a minority of frequent flyers , making it a focus of climate campaigners. They called the ghost flight revelations “shocking” and said a jet fuel tax was needed and airport expansion plans should be questioned. The UK government describes ghost flights as “ environmentally damaging ”.

Why ghost flights operate remains unclear. Only airlines know the reasons but they do not publish data that explains the practice. Ghost flights may run to fulfil “use-it-or-lose-it” airport slot rules, though these were suspended during the height of the pandemic. Other reasons cited by airlines include Covid repatriation flights or the repositioning of aircraft. But these cannot be verified and campaigners said more transparency was needed.

The new data gives the fullest picture to date of the number of UK ghost flights, as previous data only counted international departures . It now includes international arrivals and flights within the UK. The CAA will now publish this data quarterly, as a result of a series of FoI requests by the Guardian.

“Publication of this data is a step in the right direction, but we need more transparency to understand why these inefficient, polluting practices continue, and to hold the main airline culprits to account,” said Tim Johnson at the Aviation Environment Federation. “Given the climate emergency, the revelation that so many near empty planes have been burning fossil fuels and adding to the CO 2 building up in the atmosphere is pretty shocking.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said it would work with the CAA to monitor aircraft occupancy and seek greater transparency on the issue of ghost flights.

The data shows an average of 130 completely empty flights a month since 2019. The number of empty flights remained at a similar level before, during and after pandemic travel restrictions, with the second highest level in the second quarter of 2022. This suggests the reason the airlines chose to fly empty planes was not related to the impact of Covid on aviation.

Half of the empty flights were within the UK and the top seven airports accounted for two-thirds of the total, led by Birmingham with 1,455, Luton (1,307) and Bristol (758). The number of empty flights did not correlate with the total number of flights at each airport, suggesting they may reflect issues on specific routes.

There have been an average of 1,200 almost empty ghost flights a month since the start of 2020, when numbers jumped at the start of the Covid pandemic. Most of these – about 80% – were to or from foreign destinations.

Eight airports, among the busiest in the UK, accounted for about two-thirds of the almost empty flights since 2019, led by Heathrow (10,467), Manchester (3,309), Gatwick (2,766) and Stansted (2,197). Edinburgh and Glasgow both had more than 1,500 almost empty flights.

Alethea Warrington, at the climate charity Possible, said: “This shocking new data on ghost flights is yet another example of how the aviation industry cannot be trusted to get its emissions on track to tackle the climate crisis.”

“Following a summer of record-breaking, runway-melting heat, this wanton waste of carbon by airlines flies in the face of those feeling the full brunt of our warming world,” she said. “To end this for good, it’s time to start taxing kerosene to discourage unnecessary emissions.”

A spokesperson for Airlines UK said: “Millions of flights arrived and departed the UK between 2019 and 2022, with only a tiny fraction operating without or with few passengers and for a variety of operational reasons driven by the pandemic.”

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Airlines have denied operating ghost flights to retain slots. The normal 80:20 rule, meaning 80% of flights on a route must operate to retain the valuable slots, only applies to the busiest airports and was suspended from the end of March 2020 because of the pandemic. It was reintroduced as a 50:50 rule in October 2021 and rose to 70:30 from the end of March 2022 .

Some airlines have said that some ghost flights took place during the pandemic to fly in Covid-related supplies on passenger planes. However, the CAA data records fewer than 300 flights since the start of 2020 carrying cargo but no passengers.

A spokesperson for Birmingham airport said: “Flight occupancy fell during the pandemic due to travel restrictions. During this time flights into Birmingham included British nationals returning from ‘red list’ countries, PPE and Afghan refugees.”

A Luton airport spokesperson said the reasons for the high number of ghost flights included Covid travel restrictions and regulatory requirements regarding aircraft airworthiness and pilot licensing. “Following the removal of all travel restrictions, average passenger loads per flight have returned to 88% this summer,” he said. Repositioning of aircraft and maintenance was among the reasons given by Bristol airport for its ghost flights.

Heathrow is the UK’s busiest airport and had the highest number of almost empty flights. A Heathrow spokesperson said: “At a time [during the pandemic] when the industry was losing billions, no operator would have been flying a plane without it being commercially viable or without an operational need. As borders closed to passengers, airlines switched to cargo operations, delivering vital medical supplies for the country.”

Anna Hughes, at the Flight Free UK campaign group, said: “Putting tens of thousands of empty or near-empty planes in the air during a climate crisis is a vast waste of money and a needless source of emissions. It makes a mockery of people’s efforts to reduce their own emissions. If it makes business sense for the airlines to do this, there’s something badly wrong with the business model.”

The spokesperson for Airlines UK said: “UK airlines are fully committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Alongside filling our flights as much as possible, we are making ‘jet zero’ a reality by modernising our airspace to further reduce inefficiencies, using at least 10% sustainable aviation fuel by 2030 and driving the development of zero emission commercial aircraft.”

Johnson said: “Several reasons have been put forward for near empty flights during the pandemic, but the provision of 2019 data – a record year for airport passengers in the UK – highlights a wider problem. The data also shows that 50,000 aircraft arrived or departed from Heathrow and Gatwick alone in 2019 less than half full. This must cast doubt both on these airports’ claims that they are effectively full and need to expand and on their claims to be responding to the urgency of the climate challenge.”

All the flights in the CAA data are commercial passenger flights and air crew training flights are not included. There were thousands of ghost flights to oil rigs but these were not included in the Guardian analysis. The CAA data also lists Bournemouth airport as having 933 empty flights, but the airport said the vast majority of these were non-commercial flights run by a company that is a tenant at the airport.

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What are 'ghost flights' and why are they causing so much uproar right now?

An airliner throughout stormy clouds in Normandy, France

Their seats lie empty, their emergency-landing videos stay unwatched and their meals remain unmicrowaved as they glide like phantoms through the skies, as if blighted by some terrible airborne curse.

But there is no curse. Not unless you count the curse of runway overcrowding or the climate impacts of running empty flights.

For they are the "ghost flights" of the aviation industry: Chartered to fly around the world – sometimes just around an airport – simply so airlines can hang on to takeoff and landing slots.

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And now, a U.K. parliamentary petition has been launched waging war on this "shocking waste of resources and a needless source of emissions." At the time of writing, it had amassed more than 4,000 signatures.

"Airlines have been flying planes empty to retain their landing slots," the petition states. "These 'ghost' flights are a shocking waste of resources and a needless source of emissions."

"At a time of climate emergency, we need to drastically reduce our fossil fuel use, and in the context of our steadily dwindling carbon budget, it beggars belief that planes fly empty."

"U.K. regulation states that airlines must use their landing slots more than 80% of the time in order to keep them. This was suspended at the outset of the pandemic but is now 50%, with plans to return to 80% by March 2022."

Related: Pilot chat: What those complicated phrases really mean

What are 'ghost flights'?

According to EU regulations, carriers must maintain a certain percentage of their scheduled flights, or risk losing the slots to another company — a practice known in the flight business as "keeping slots warm."

Normally, airlines must stick to the 80:20 rule, meaning they must fulfill at least 80% of their allocated runway time.

During the pandemic, however, that was reduced to a 50:50 rule. But as the travel industry clambers back to its feet after two years of restrictions, that is expected to return to 80:20.

Last week, Lufthansa Group, which owns Lufthansa, Swiss International Airlines, Austrian Airlines, Eurowings and Brussels Airlines, stirred anger after it admitted 18,000 flights would be flown empty this winter, including 3,000 Brussels Airlines routes.

"We will have to carry out 18,000 extra, unnecessary flights just to secure our takeoff and landing rights," said chief executive Carsten Spohr.

What's all the fuss about?

In reaction to Lufthansa's ghost flights, last week Ryanair responded by calling on the European Commission to force Lufthansa to sell seats on empty flights at low fares.

Chief executive of Ryanair, Michael O'Leary, said at the time that "Lufthansa loves crying crocodile tears about the environment when doing everything possible to protect its slots."

"If Lufthansa doesn't want to operate 'ghost flights' to protect its slots, then simply sell these seats at low fares, and help accelerate the recovery of short and long haul air travel to and from Europe."

Lufthansa argued that customers were not being kept away by a reluctance to provide cheaper fares but by pandemic travel restrictions.

Related: How pilots deal with sudden airspace closures

For the aviation industry, the argument for the "use it or lose it" rule is that it keeps the industry competitive by incentivizing airlines to fly routes, trade them or hand them back so other carriers, including new market entrants, can use them instead.

"The slot rules help maximize competition by keeping airfares low while increasing their choice of destinations and airline," Gatwick airport's chief commercial officer, Jonathan Pollard, told The Independent. "Restoring the slot rules would be a clear signal that the U.K. government is getting fully behind the recovery of the  U.K. aviation sector."

But the flights aren't just causing airline industry squabbles. They have also long caused anger among environmental groups, with Greenpeace dubbing them "absurd and revolting."

It may make financial sense, campaigners say, but environmentally, it's nonsense.

Aviation is, after all, responsible for around 2.4% of global CO2 emissions while, alongside other gases and the water vapor trails produced by aircraft , the industry is responsible for around 5% of global warming.

"A short-haul flight on a 737 emits approximately 18 tons of CO2 per hour — that is almost twice what an average European citizen emits in an entire year," Catherine Livesley, founder of No Fly Travel Club , told EuroNews.com . "It seems incomprehensible that we actively require airlines to produce these colossal emissions simply to secure landing slots — even at 50% of normal capacity.

Then there is air pollution in towns and cities across the world. According to the World Health Organization , 99% of the world population is exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution — of which air travel is a major contributor — leading to 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide.

"Absurd and revolting," tweeted Greenpeace on Jan. 10. "These unnecessary ghost flights need to stop now."

For the current petition to receive genuine government attention it will need to hit the 10,000 signature mark, at which the government will formally respond to it. If it reaches 100,000 signatures it will be considered for debate in Parliament which could prompt further actions.

TPG will continue to monitor this story and provide additional updates on how this could affect travel in the U.K. and potential resolutions to the problem.

Simple Flying

Ghost plane: what caused the crash of helios airways flight 522.

The accident took place on August 14, 2005.

The crash of Helios Airways flight 522, which took place on August 14, 2005, is one of the most unusual and shocking aviation accidents of the 21st century. It involved a Boeing 737-300 that came down near Grammatiko in eastern Greece. But what exactly caused the crash of this so-called 'ghost plane'?

The flight in question

Helios Airways was a low-cost airline based in Larnaca, Cyprus. From 1998, it operated both scheduled and charter flights from the island nation to various European and North African destinations, stretching from Dublin to Cairo.

One of Helios's scheduled destinations was the Czech capital of Prague, and it flew there from Larnaca under the flight number ZU522. This flight also featured an intermediate stopover in the Greek capital of Athens. Its scheduled departure time from Larnaca was 09:00 local time, and, on August 14th, 2005, it took to the skies just seven minutes late, according to the Aviation Safety Network.

How did the accident begin?

Just five minutes after takeoff, the aircraft's cabin altitude warning horn sounded, prompting the crew to halt the climb. At this stage, the plane was at an altitude of 12,040 feet. However, the sound was identical to the takeoff configuration warning, and the crew disregarded it, believing it to be this alarm instead.

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As such, they were unaware of the loss of cabin pressure currently occurring onboard. Seven minutes into the flight, the pilots reported an air conditioning problem, and contacted the airline's operations department. Meanwhile, oxygen masks had deployed upon reaching an altitude of 18,000 feet.

By the time the operations center made its last contact with the crew, at 09:20, communication with the pilots was becoming increasingly difficult. This was because they were beginning to experience symptoms of hypoxia due to the loss of pressure. The aircraft eventually stopped climbing at 34,000 feet at 09:23.

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The interception

Upon entering the Athens flight information region at 09:37, the aircraft began circling on autopilot as the further loss of pressure had incapacitated the crew. With the pilots continuing not to respond to air traffic control messages, two Greek F-16 fighter jets were dispatched to intercept the flight. They took off at 11:05, and located the plane at 11:24. The fighter pilots reported a curious scene in the cockpit.

Specifically, the captain's seat was empty, while the first officer was slumped unconscious over the controls. They then witnessed a flight attendant enter the cockpit with an oxygen supply at 11:49, who, along with his partner, attempted to control the aircraft. He even waved at the F-16 pilots, but, shortly afterward, the plane's left engine flamed out due to fuel exhaustion, causing it to descend.

The crash and the cause

While the flight attendant, Andreas Prodromou, was unable to regain control of the plane, he was heroically able to turn it away from Athens during the descent, preventing ground casualties. However, the fate of the aircraft's 115 passengers and six crew was sealed, with all 121 occupants losing their lives when Helios Airways flight 522 crashed into mountainous terrain near Grammatiko, Greece, at 12:04.

But what was the cause of this tragedy? It was found that an engineer had carried out a pressurization leak check earlier that day. However, this involved the engineer setting the pressurization system to manual, to avoid running the engines.

Upon completing the check, they forgot to reset the pressurization system to auto, which ultimately led to the loss of pressure that incapacitated the flight's crew.

The aircraft involved

The plane that crashed in this tragic accident was a Boeing 737-300 with the registration 5B-DBY. According to Planespotters.net , the aircraft had originally been delivered to German low-cost carrier Deutsche BA as D-ADBQ in January 1998.

In 2002, the airline rebranded as simply DBA, and altered the plane's configuration. It went from seating 122 passengers across two classes (40 business class and 82 economy class) to a 136-seat all-economy configuration.

Helios then began leasing the aircraft from Deutsche Structured Finance in April 2004. As such, the aircraft had only been with the airline for just over a year at the time of the crash. All in all, was active for just over seven and a half years.

Helios Airways rebranded itself as Ajet and withdrew from scheduled operations in March 2006. Despite this, it eventually permanently suspended its remaining charter flights in November that year, and ceased to exist as an airline thereafter.

Similar incidents

As it happens, the crash of Helios flight 522 was not the first instance when an aircraft crashed following a total pressure loss. Indeed, in October 1999, a Learjet 35 flying from Orlando to Dallas with six people onboard came down in Edmunds County, South Dakota after flying for four hours without any input after hypoxia incapacitated everyone onboard due to an unspecified depressurization.

Just under a year later, in September 2000, an Australian Beechcraft turboprop was also lost in similar circumstances while flying from Perth to Leonora with eight people onboard. Investigators determined that the plane crashed due to fuel exhaustion after its occupants were incapacitated, but were unable to work out what exactly had caused this ultimately deadly loss in cabin pressure.

This year we have had a similar incident. On Sunday, June 4, a private plane crashed in rural Virginia. The accident prompted a response by military jets causing a sonic boom heard across the Washington region.

As reported by The Washington Post, contact with the private plane was lost about 15 minutes after departure and the aircraft crossed Washington's restricted airspace, prompting the action of military jets. One of the pilots of the military F-16 flying at supersonic speed to intercept the plane saw that the pilot was "slumped over." While the investigation is ongoing, experts have said the pilot may have fallen unconscious, suffering from hypoxia and that the plane was running on autopilot until it ran out of fuel.

Source: Aviation Safety Network , The Washington Post .

The scandal of 'ghost flights': are empty planes haunting our skies?

As the travel industry pledges net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, news of ‘ghost flights’ has hit the headlines. here’s everything you need to know about the mary celestes of the skies..

More than 10,000 'ghost flights' flew over European skies in winter 2021/22 according to recent analysis from Greenpeace.

What are ‘ghost flights’? 

Empty or near-empty planes that fly scheduled routes so airlines can keep to contractual obligations. EU law says carriers must operate a percentage of flights (traditionally 80%) to retain valuable take-off and landing slots, notably at high-traffic airports: the so-called ‘use it or lose it’ rule.

How many are there? 

This supposedly rare occurrence became more frequent during pandemic lockdowns. More than 10,000 ghost flights flew over European skies in winter 2021/22 according to recent analysis from Greenpeace, while The Guardian reported that 15,000 have flown since March 2020, based on Department for Transport analysis of Civil Aviation Authority airport data.

Why does it matter? 

In October 2021, the aviation industry pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The environmental damage from ghost flights, according to Greenpeace, is ‘equivalent to the yearly emissions of more than 1.4 million cars.’

When do they fly? 

According to the European Commission (EC), they don’t. The EC temporarily suspended Europe’s airport slot rule for a short period during the pandemic, and said it hadn’t created issues for airlines during this time. It reinstated the rule in October 2021.

What does it mean for consumers?

Airlines may be denying that they run ghost flights, but they’re certainly able to operate them during travel bans: they don’t have to cancel flights even if pandemic restrictions mean their passengers can no longer travel. This has left consumers out of pocket. The EC’s Denied Boarding Regulation says that if a UK or European airline cancels a flight departing or landing within the region, it must issue passengers a refund or offer another flight. However, if the flight isn’t cancelled, consumers may miss out on refunds.

Who’s flying? 

Lufthansa, from whose data the Greenpeace figure was extrapolated to apply to all European carriers, has said that it faced the prospect of some 18,000 superfluous flights over the recent six-month winter season to retain its slots under European rules. However, a spokesperson for the carrier also said: “Unnecessary flights aren’t empty or ‘ghost’ flights. They’re scheduled flights that are poorly booked as a result of the pandemic.”

What happens if an airline loses its slots?

Airport slot rules are intended to maximise competition and keep airfares low by incentivising airlines to fly, trade or hand back unused airport slots so other airlines can fly them instead. Critics, including the likes of Willie Walsh, director of the International Air Transport Association, argue this encourages airlines to fly at low capacity or empty to keep slots.

What’s the solution?

Air France says it wants greater slot rule flexibility, while Ryanair called for airlines to sell unused seats at cheaper prices, and for the EC to force carriers to release unused slots. Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation, called for airlines “with a modern full plane to be preferred over rival carriers, who are operating with much lower load factors or older technologies.”

Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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Why the sky is still full of empty ‘ghost’ flights.

A commercial aircraft flies over the Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi Hotel in the port at the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi on November 26, 2015 ahead of the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix.  (Photo by Tom Gandolfini/AFP/Getty Images)

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In the early days of the pandemic, when demand for air travel abruptly flatlined and international borders closed, “ghost flights” became a common phenomenon.

These were empty or near-empty planes traversing the skyline as airline schedules kept to their contractual obligations to fly. The problem is that, more than two years on, they’re still haunting the skies above us.

A new report by the Guardian, based on a freedom of information request, found that at the end of last year there were around 500 “ghost flights” departing from the UK per month.

And in January 2022, analysis from Greenpeace claimed that more than 100,000 “ghost flights” would sail over European skies this winter. The climate damage, claims the environmental group, is “equivalent to the yearly emissions of more than 1.4 million cars.”

The Greenpeace figures were extrapolated from a December interview with Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr in which he warned that Lufthansa Group was facing the prospect of 18,000 superfluous flights over the six-month winter season to retain its slots under European rules.

On the basis that Lufthansa’s air traffic accounts for 17% of the European market, Greenpeace reckons the total number of Europe’s ghost flights would generate 2.1 million tonnes of CO2.

The analysis has triggered a torrent of outrage. Campaigner Greta Thunberg asserted that “Brussels Airlines [part of the Lufthansa group] makes 3,000 unnecessary flights to maintain airport slots.” In the UK, a petition was launched, appealing to the government to ground unoccupied flights.

Lufthansa, meanwhile, says it’s doing its best to fill all its aircraft, but was struggling to balance Covid chaos with the need to hold onto its slots.

“Unnecessary flights are not empty or ‘ghost’ flights,” a spokesman for the airline told CNN. “They are scheduled flights that are poorly booked due to the pandemic. Despite poor demand, Lufthansa Group Airlines must operate these flights to continue securing takeoff and landing rights at hubs and major EU airports.”

Lufthansa says that the emergence of the Omicron variant is the reason its projections for the season ahead were so far short of the reality. The crisis “led to significantly increased travel restrictions and cases of illness in the general population and among employees,” says its spokesperson. “This unexpectedly not only reduced the prior trend of recovery, but also triggered a significant slump in demand.”

Last October, the aviation industry pledged at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) annual meeting to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Numerous players – including hub-based carriers, low-cost airlines, regulators and environmental lobbyists – are at loggerheads in a multi-way blame game over the absurd wastefulness of unnecessary flights.

“We’re in a climate crisis, and the transport sector has the fastest-growing emissions in the EU – pointless, polluting ‘ghost flights’ are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Herwig Schuster, spokesperson for Greenpeace’s “European Mobility For All” campaign.

“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,” he adds.

So why on Earth are these Mary Celeste flights still ongoing – and what are aviation’s stakeholders doing to disentangle themselves from the red tape that has ensnared the airlines into this climate-damaging mess?

How close are we to guilt-free flying?

Precious assets

The reason airlines continue to operate these expensive flights is because the industry is engaged in a slots game more high stakes and lucrative than anything you’ll find in Las Vegas.

Even when passengers are staying away, airlines still need to protect their slots: their scheduled time on valuable routes.

Slots are extremely precious assets for airlines. With more than 200 of the planet’s busiest hubs operating at full capacity, demand for flights exceeds the availability of runways and space inside the terminals.

To manage this, capacity at congested airports is segmented into slots. These are the facility to land, disembark passengers, refuel, take on a new cohort of passengers and then take off again – all within a specified and regulated time frame.

Carriers then plan their schedules based on slot availability at both ends of the route. To maximize revenue, the schedules have to align with demand – early morning slots for business travelers traveling short-haul, same-day-return trips are highly prized.

But synchronizing the timing of both ends of the journey when the most desirable airports are full up is no easy feat.

“If you take off from one place you need to know you can land at a certain time at another,” says Paul Steele of the IATA. “If you tinker with slot allocation at one end of the process, it creates chaos at the other end, and therefore we need a harmonized system.”

That’s where the Worldwide Airport Slot Guidelines (WASG) come in. These are the foundation upon which the global slot allocation process works. The Guidelines (jointly published by IATA, Airports Council International and the Worldwide Airport Coordinators Group) aspire to deliver “transparency, flexibility, certainty, consistency and sustainability … for the benefit of airlines, airports and consumers.”

Lufthansa's boss says the group will have to run 18,000 unnnecessary flights over the winter season in order to hold onto its airport slots.

Mind-boggling system

But with airlines operating hundreds of city-pair routes – some synchronized with connecting flights – this is a mind-boggling system to administer, and the allocation must be done twice a year for the summer and winter season schedules.

To re-plan all of this every six months would be too complicated, so there’s a rule that states that if an airline successfully uses its slot at least 80% of the time, it is allowed to retain the slot the following season, a system known as “grandfather rights.”

There’s therefore very little flexibility in the network for introducing new routes, especially at congested airports. And that’s why slots are gold dust.

In the UK, Heathrow Airport holds the most valuable slots. Limited capacity there has propelled the price of slots skywards, with an early morning slot pair worth around $19 million, falling to $13 million at midday and $6 million in the evening, according to a UK House of Commons briefing paper .

Record-breaking deals where airlines have traded these slots include the case of Oman Air, which was reported to have paid $75 million for a pair of takeoff and landing slots at Heathrow in early 2016. In March 2017, SAS Scandinavian Airlines sold two slot pairs at Heathrow to American Airlines for $75 million , according to the same paper . Usually, however, airlines keep these contractual details under wraps.

Slots can also be traded in other ways, such as swaps between carriers, similar to the way that football teams have players out on loan.

Because of the “grandfather rights” system, airlines reducing their use of the slots risk losing them. Cutting capacity is threatening the airlines’ hold on their slots, which is why planes might still be operated even when hardly anyone is flying in them.

The rapid rise of 'red tourism' in China

Loosening the red tape

Two years ago, when the initial impact of Covid decimated the airline networks, the 80% rule was relaxed.

In the United States, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) waived the slot usage, just as it had previously suspended the regulation in 2002, 2003 and 2009 – following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States; the outbreak of SARS; and the global financial crisis, respectively.

And in Europe, for the current Winter 2021-2022 period, the “use it or lose it” threshold was lowered to 50%. But airlines are facing increased uncertainty and want greater latitude for retaining their slots.

Air France-KLM Group, for example, issued a statement , seeking “the current [Covid] situation to be better taken into account in the application of European regulations so that airlines can continue to adjust their offer to actual demand levels.”

In particular, the Group seeks increased flexibility “in the application of the force majeure rules allowing for derogations from the 50% slot utilization rule.”

In response, and perhaps in recognition that the Omicron variant is now playing havoc with everybody’s travel plans, the European Commission issued an extension to the slot relief rules effective until October 29, 2022. However the Commission is raising its threshold to 64% in April.

“The progress in vaccination campaigns and the EU Digital Covid-19 Certificate have helped to restore traveler confidence and air connectivity in the EU, putting the industry in a stronger position to deal with short-term shocks,” explains Adina Vălean, the EU’s commissioner for transport. “Even if we are not there yet, we can take a step further towards the return to normal airport slot management next summer.”

Vălean says the EU is monitoring the situation, acknowledging the lingering impact of Omicron on airline bookings. “The Commission has demonstrated throughout the Covid-19 crisis its willingness and ability to act swiftly where needed, and this will remain the case in the coming months,” she adds.

Heathrow is the UK's busiest airport.

Payback time?

From the perspective of one of Europe’s largest low-cost carriers, solving the problem of ghost flights may be straightforward.

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary says that, “If Lufthansa really needs to operate these flights (solely to prevent the release of these slots to competitor airlines), then they should be required to sell these seats to the public at low fares.”

O’Leary’s contention is that Lufthansa and its subsidiary airlines (Brussels Airlines, Swiss and Austrian) have benefited from billions of State Aid. Consequently, “instead of operating empty flights just so they can block slots, Lufthansa should release the seats on these flights for sale at low fares to reward the German and European taxpayers who have subsidized it with €billions during the Covid crisis,” he says.

However, Lufthansa’s spokesperson argues that it’s a different situation for larger airlines. “Network companies like Lufthansa Group are more dependent on slots for feeder flights that connect passengers to long-haul routes at group hubs than low-cost airlines that tend to fly to smaller airports where there usually is no shortage of slots,” he says.

The only exception to the use-it-or-lose-it rule is the force majeure clause. However, this is not interpreted uniformly throughout Europe. Many countries grant no exceptions or only a few.

Instigating exceptions is also very bureaucratic and time-consuming. Each exception must be granted individually: for the starting point and the destination – therefore two approvals are always required. Since approvals are usually granted on short notice before a flight, there is no longer enough time for passengers to be rebooked.

Lufthansa says it wants all EU member states to be granted exceptions to takeoff and landing rules so that the issue can be addressed flexibly, minimizing bureaucracy for the current winter schedule. “The EU Commission should advocate uniform regulations so unnecessary flights are avoided and airlines are able to better plan,” says its spokesperson.

Protect and compete

Meanwhile, ACI Europe, the professional association of airport operators which represents over 500 airports in 55 countries, has expressed dismay at the escalating industry and political rhetoric around ghost flights. It’s also casting doubt on the reasoning of the major hub carriers that ghost flights are unavoidable.

“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,” says ACI Europe director general, Olivier Jankovec.

Slot usage rules, he says, need to achieve two things in the current circumstances: “to protect airlines from the worst of unpredictabilities which are out of all our hands, and crucially, to also ensure that airport capacity is still used in a pro-competitive way.”

Jankovec adds that reconciling commercial viability alongside the need to retain essential connectivity and protect against anti-competitive consequences is a delicate task: “We believe that the European Commission has got this right. Talk of ghost flights, and of their environmental impacts, seems to hint at a doomsday scenario which has no place in reality. Let’s stick to the vital task of recovering and rebuilding together”.

And going one step further, on February 2, IATA released a statement welcoming updated guidance from the European Airport Coordinators Association, intended to provide a more harmonized policies on slot-use thresholds.

Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general, said such a move was crucial for “sustaining critical European air connectivity” and for “leveling the playing field with jurisdictions that have recognized the need for full flexibility.”

That promise of flexibility will be pivotal to the minimization of empty flights. But ultimately, their complete eradication will only be achieved when the public’s propensity for air travel, facilitated by the eventual and complete conquest over the Covid virus, enables airlines to fill their planes with fare-paying passengers – instead of ghosts.

Top image: A plane flies over the Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi Hotel in Abu Dhabi in November 2015. (Photo by Tom Gandolfini/AFP/Getty Images)

Paul Sillers is an aviation journalist specializing in passenger experience and future air travel tech. Follow him at @paulsillers


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