Ghost Flights and Their Impact on the Environment

Despite their name, ghost flights are a real (although unbelievable) and regular occurrence all over the world. Ghost flights are flights that are operated without any passengers on board. These flights take place to keep an airline’s rights to land at an airport, maintain pilot and crew certifications and keep aircraft in the air for maintenance purposes. Without ghost flights, airlines risk losing their most popular and profitable routes and slots to their competitors.

The number of airplanes flying with no passengers on board is surprising to say the least. A report by the Guardian revealed that in the last quarter of 2021, there were nearly 500 ghost flights per month departing from the United Kingdom. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) took issue with the lack of context in the Guardian piece and offered its own take on the matter:

  • Based on the article’s numbers, ghost flights accounted for less than one percent of all flights, even during the height of the pandemic when few people were still flying
  • Some of those flights were carrying materials or repatriating citizens from other countries
  • Slot rules were suspended in the UK during the pandemic

However, their analysis did acknowledge that the slot rule in the EU should likely be reconsidered given environmental concerns across the industry.

Why Do Airplanes Fly Empty?

Airlines need to secure slots at airports for takeoff and landing. At high-traffic airports like Atlanta, LAX or Chicago’s O’Hare, these slots are incredibly valuable. Regulators like the FAA and EASA make sure airlines are using these slots 80 percent of the time to keep them. If they can’t keep those slots in use, they will go to an airline that does have the capacity and demand.

This means airlines will fly from and to these destinations even if the flights are empty or have only a handful of passengers on board if for whatever reason the airline doesn’t have adequate ticket sales or need for a flight at that airport and time.

It’s impossible to elaborate on ghost flights without mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic. With the outbreak of the virus, the aviation industry suffered tremendous losses. There were no flights in and out of major countries like China and South Korea, and very few flights operating in general (even between domestic airports).

The FAA and EASA, encouraged by the IATA, did waive the 80-20 rule temporarily, although the pause only lasted for a matter of months and did not cover the entirety of the nearly year-long lockdown many people endured.

The alternative to running ghost flights was losing valuable slots at high-traffic airports, which would have been made available for purchase by other airlines. Since it was believed the pandemic-related aviation crisis was temporary, airlines preferred to keep their slots rather than give them up and have to bid for them at a later time (this would have likely cost airlines even more money). Consequently, air carriers still needed to fly their regular routes, but many of the flights had either very few passengers on board or were completely empty.

How Do Ghost Flights Impact the Environment?

Airplanes have a significant impact on the environment. The burning of jet fuel releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and climate change. Airplanes also produce noise pollution, which can be disruptive to wildlife and people living near airports.

Despite its undeniable carbon footprint, air travel comes with many benefits that tend to outweigh the negative environmental impact. But can the same be said about ghost flights? Are ghost flights that big of a problem and if so, what could be done to mitigate it?

For its part, the IATA has provided a fairly lengthy defense of slots but also offered some potential improvements to address both airport capacity and the management of these scarce and valuable slots.

Is There a Ghost Flight Solution?

As the world continues to emerge from the pandemic, air travel continues to resume. While ghost flights are still a regular occurrence, with more and more passengers filling up domestic and international flights, it’s likely the number of empty flights will continue to decline.

To reduce their carbon footprint from redundant and unnecessary air service, airlines in the United States are pushing the Department of Transportation (DOT) to take action and prevent all unnecessary ghost flights.

Since DOT is largely responsible for a safe and environmentally friendly national airport system, it’s in their hands to rethink the minimum service requirements so many commercial airlines are forced to follow to remain afloat.

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