At least 100,000 “ghost flights” could be flown across Europe this winter due to EU rules on slot use, according to an analysis by Greenpeace.
The abandoned, unnecessary or unprofitable flights are said to allow airlines to keep their runway rights at major airports, but could also cause up to 2.1 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions – or up to 1.4 million average petrol or diesel cars in emit within a year – says Greenpeace.
“For the EU Commission to require airlines to fly empty planes in order to meet an arbitrary quota is not only environmentally harmful, but also extremely hypocritical given their climate rhetoric,” said Herwig Schuster, spokesman for the European campaign “Mobility for All”. Greenpeace.
“Traffic emissions are skyrocketing,” he said. “It would be irresponsible for the EU not to take the low-hanging fruit, end ghost flights and ban short-haul flights where there is one reasonable train connection.“
With the onset of the Covid pandemic, the European Commission lowered the benchmark for flight operations that airlines must meet keep their slots open from 80% to 25%.
But last December, Brussels raised the benchmark to 50% and rose again to 64% in March.
Lufthansa CEO, Carsten Spohr, said that his airline may need to fly 18,000 “unnecessary multi-flights” to meet the adjusted rules, and called for the kind of “climate-friendly exemptions” common in other parts of the world.
A Lufthansa spokesman said between January and March 2021 only 45% of flights were fully booked.
The other 5%, or 18,000 flights, “we define as unnecessary,” the spokesman added. “If we weren’t risking losing slots at certain airports in Europe, we probably would have canceled them and merged them with other existing flights.”
Greenpeace transferred Lufthansa’s share of ghost flights to other European airlines, based on that of the German airline 17% market share, using a conservative estimate of 20 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per flight.
The study assumed an average flight time of 90 minutes in a 200-seat aircraft over a distance of 800 to 1,000 km.
Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation, said Greenpeace’s assumptions were “spot on”.
“It looks like an example of waste in the industry and I think people will be surprised at the scale,” he said. “It points to a real problem that airlines are being forced to operate either empty legs or very light load flights to maintain their slots.”
The European Commission denies that airlines are operating ghost flights or that the “use it or lose it” slot rules have caused problems.
A Commission spokesman said: “Empty flights are bad for the economy and the environment, which is why we have put in place several measures that allow companies to avoid such empty flights. When airlines decide to keep empty legs, it is a corporate decision and not the result of EU regulations.”
Brussels argues that it has already slashed slot requirements and that airlines can demand that those too be grounded if flights are disrupted by “heavy hygiene measures” such as new government travel restrictions.
Earlier this month, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary complained that big airlines were benefiting from generous EU breaks, “and now Lufthansa is still not happy. They don’t want to do ghost flights because, ‘Ohhh, the environment,'” he says said Politico.
The Irish low-cost airline wants Lufthansa to sell unsold tickets at low prices and for the Commission to force them to release unused slots.
Air France says it wants more flexibility in slot rules, but a spokesman said there would be no data on how many undercapacity and unnecessary flights it is currently flying.
Johnson said it’s right to focus on climate impacts when huge amounts of CO2 were sent out unnecessarily, but that there was a “broader industry battle” that suggested the need for slots reform.
“We need something that really rewards efficiency,” he said. “A kind of efficiency metric as a basis for slot allocation that would allow an operator with a modern all-wing aircraft to be preferred over competing airlines operating with much lower load factors or older technologies.”