Thousands of ‘ghost flights’ left UK during pandemic

Feb 27, 2022 | BUSINESS

Near-empty planes were flown between March 2020 and September 2021, new figures reveal

Nearly 15,000 flights with less than 10% of the seats sold departed from the UK during 19 months of the pandemic, according to official figures revealed earlier this month.

The data – released by the aviation minister Robert Courts on the UK Parliament website – shows that the near-empty flights departed from 32 UK airports. The note accompanying the release defines ghost flights as those with no more than 10% of seats occupied. 

The highest number of international ghost flights – 4,910 – departed from London’s Heathrow Airport, followed by 1,548 from Manchester and 1,044 from Gatwick. The average number of empty flights a month over the period stood at 760. The data was collected by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on commercial flight operations and covers the period between March 2020 and September 2021.

Airlines operate ghost flights to retain the right to use their scheduled takeoff and landing slots at airports. During normal times, EU regulations required airlines to operate 80% of their slots. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the rule was suspended but then reintroduced at a level of 50%. Last December, the European Commission said the current 50% threshold would be raised to 64% for this year’s April-to-November flight season.

READ MORE: Brussels washes hands of ‘ghost’ flights

According to Robert Courts, the alleviation meant that airlines have not been required to operate empty or almost empty flights solely to retain their historic slot rights.

Last month, EU authorities urged airlines to stop operating empty flights citing their economic inefficiency and harm to the environment. The comments followed an announcement by Europe’s second-biggest carrier, Lufthansa, which said that 18,000 flights had to be flown empty due to regulatory pressure.

Flying is one of the most environmentally damaging activities with huge carbon emissions, and ghost flights have drawn anger from climate change campaigners.

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