Airlines pollute EU skies with nearly empty 'ghost flights' to conserve slots


They are 'ghost flights', planes that take off and land and follow the agreed route but with hardly any passengers or only the crew on board. They fly polluting the air with greenhouse gas emissions so that airlines can maintain their EU take-off and landing rights and, also, the time slots ('slots', in technical jargon) in which they operate.

The coronavirus also has negative effects on the climate crisis: planes that fly empty

The coronavirus also has negative effects on the climate crisis: planes that fly empty

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According to an analysis by the environmental organization Greenpeace, collected by the British newspaper The Guardian, this winter there could be at least 100,000 'ghost flights' across Europe due to EU airport slot usage rules.

Those useless trips could generate up to 2.1 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions – as much as what 1.4 million gasoline or diesel cars emit on average in a year – says Greenpeace. Those from aviation account for between 2% and 3% of global emissions, and it is expected that by 2050 they will triple (at least).

Greenpeace's calculation

What Greenpeace has done is apply Lufthansa's 'ghost flights' ratio to other European airlines based on the German company's 17% market share. The result, using a conservative estimate, is 20 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per flight. The research is based on the assumption that a 200-seater plane takes an average of 90 minutes to cover a distance of between 800 and 1,000 km.

Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation consulted by the British newspaper, said that Greenpeace's assumptions were "sound": "It looks like an example of waste in the industry and I think people will be surprised by its magnitude. It points to a real problem with airlines being forced to operate with empty or very low occupancy flights to maintain their slots."

"The European Commission requires airlines to fly empty planes to meet an arbitrary quota that is not only polluting, but also extremely hypocritical, given their climate rhetoric," Herwig Schuster, spokesperson for the campaign 'Mobility Europe for All' of Greenpeace. "Transport emissions are skyrocketing. It would be irresponsible for the EU not to ban short-haul flights where there is a reasonable rail connection."

In October 2020, the Government of the Canary Islands reserved one million euros to subsidize flights between the Islands and the continent, even if they were empty

The European Commission establishes minimum percentages of landings and takeoffs of the companies so that they can maintain their time slots. During the pandemic, that percentage went from 80% of the flights of each airline to 25%, given the drop in demand when the borders were closed to tourism. In December, however, Brussels raised that percentage to 50% and in March it will go to 64%.

In October 2020, the Government of the Canary Islands reserved one million euros to subsidize flights between the Islands and the mainland, paying between two and four euros per seat, whether occupied or not...

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr told The Guardian that his airline may have to fly 18,000 "unnecessary additional flights" to meet the tightened rules, calling for the kind of "weather exemptions" used in other parts of the world.

A spokesman said that between January and March 2021, only 45% of its flights were full. The other 5%, about 18,000 flights, are considered "unnecessary" by the company. "If we didn't risk losing slots at some airports in Europe, we probably would have canceled them and bundled them with other existing flights."

Explanations in the European Parliament

Socialist MEPs from the European Parliament have demanded answers about the problem and, according to The Guardian, but the European Commission denies the 'ghost flights', or that its rules on time slots ('either use them or lose them') have created problems.

"Empty flights are bad for the economy and the environment, and that is why we have taken several measures that allow companies to carry them out. If the airlines decide to keep them, it is a company decision that is not a result of the rules of the UE”, points out a spokesman for the Community Executive to the British newspaper.



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