Explained | What are Europe’s ‘ghost flights’, and why are they a problem?

An EU regulation that dates back to 1993 requires European airlines to maintain empty or near-empty flights

March 02, 2022 10:10 pm | Updated 10:10 pm IST

Lufthansa aircraft parked on a runway at the airport in Frankfurt. File

Lufthansa aircraft parked on a runway at the airport in Frankfurt. File | Photo Credit: AP

With the decline in flights for business or pleasure due to the ongoing pandemic, airlines that are attempting to maintain market share are complaining about the ‘ghost flights’ they are being forced to fly.

An EU regulation that dates back to 1993 requires European airlines to maintain empty or near-empty flights just to retain their take-off and landing slots. This is done to avoid the slots from being handed over to other airlines that might be competitors or new market entrants. Usually, these airlines are required to use up to 80 per cent of their slots to secure them. Owing to the pandemic, this threshold was temporarily reduced to 50 per cent of booked flights but as soon as this winter ends in March 2022, it is set to once again increase to 64 per cent. Essentially, airline operators have to prove that they have adequate market demand that justifies their holdings. According to the European Commission’s website, this ‘use it or lose it’ system is employed “to ensure that airlines have access to the busiest EU airports on the basis of principles of neutrality, transparency and non-discrimination.”

Greenpeace, a global network of independent campaigning organisations that promote solutions to global environmental problems, analysed that there were over 100,000 pointless ‘ghost flights’ in Europe that are causing climate damage equivalent to emissions from 1.4 million cars.

It is a reported fact that the aviation sector accounts for a considerable amount of carbon emissions worldwide. An analysis shows that taking a long-haul flight generates more carbon emissions than the average person in dozens of countries produces in a whole year. According to Greenpeace’s analysis, ‘this number of flights causes climate damage equal to 2.1 million tonnes of CO2’ and other greenhouse gases. This damage is equivalent to emissions from 1.4 million average petrol or diesel cars in a year.

Apart from the Lufthansa Group, no other airline has communicated their number of ghost flights. The group estimated that they’ll be running around 18,000 empty flights alone, depending on their market share in Europe. By the same logic, the total number of ghost flights in Europe could be over 100,000.

Greenpeace has called on the European Commission and national governments to end the regulation that requires the maintenance of ghost flights and to ban short-haul flights where there is an alternative train route within six hours.

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