Data analysis from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has shown that over 5,000 empty passenger flights have been flown to or from the UK since 2019. These empty flights are commonly referred to as “Ghost Flights.” In addition to these empty flights, another 35,000 flights have operated at less than 10% passenger capacity in the same period in the UK.

Rise of the ghost flights

Historically ghost flights are relatively uncommon, and airlines seek to avoid them wherever possible. This is because empty flights yield no reward. Depending on the airline and the specific flight in question, many flights must be filled to 80% capacity or higher to turn a profit. Since the pandemic began, the world has seen a rise in regular ghost flights. It is no secret that the pandemic restrictions brought about a decrease in demand for passenger air travel.

Heathrow Airport Apron Multiple Airlines tail including British Airways and American Airlines

Many flights to and from the UK have continued despite carrying very few passengers. Photo: Heathrow Airport

There are several reasons behind the surge in profitless transit. When travel demand first dropped, airlines still withheld the route promises they made to customers. They continued to fly their regular operations for the few passengers who had already paid for their tickets. As lockdowns continued and airlines discovered that the strong demand felt only months prior was not about to return anytime soon, they were forced to make many difficult decisions.

One of these decisions was to cease non-profitable routes or keep them flying. Passenger airlines must obtain an operation slot for each route and airport they service before they can commence operations at that airport. These slots are highly coveted in the industry.

Airport slots in the EU run off of a “use-it-or-lose-it” policy. If airlines do not use their slots, they will be forfeited and offered to another airline. This is the primary reason behind the airline’s decision to operate ghost flights. Airlines knew that once travel demand returned, it would be critical to have these flight slots secured. Another cause of ghost flights is parcel transit. A large portion of the world’s mail is carried in the bellies of passenger planes alongside customers’ luggage. Contracts already in place for the airlines to carry this cargo also prompted them to keep the routes operating. The airplanes could also hold more cargo without any passenger luggage, helping the airlines cut their losses.

Airlines also continued flying these ghost flights to position the aircraft for busier flights. While many routes had little to no demand, multiple still did, especially as restrictions began to ease. Without flying these ghost flights to position the aircraft for these flights with demand, the airlines would have suffered even bigger losses due to the inability to meet the little demand there was.

Environmental concerns

Concerns have been voiced regarding the ecological impact these flights have had. To many, it appears wasteful and unnecessarily destructive to operate these flights without even turning a profit. Environmental conservation activists have spoken out against these ghost flights. Many have blamed the EU for encouraging the continuation of these harmful flights despite carrying few passengers.

Austrian mountains overflown by a British Airways aircraft

These ghost flights continue to produce CO2 emissions without making a profit. Photo: Getty Images

The flights have produced a lot of CO2 while providing little services. However, the continuation of these flights helped airlines retain possession of their airport slots. Airlines would have had an even harder time meeting the travel demand that followed the pandemic without these slots.

What do you think of these ghost flights? Let us know in the comments below.

Source: The Guardian


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