Few industries have been affected more by the COVID-19 pandemic than air travel; with so few people flying for business or pleasure, airlines have taken to flying “ghost flights” to secure their takeoff and landing slots at airports.
Such flights — devoid of passengers but still burning up fuel on their phantom journeys — became a familiar term in the early days of the pandemic, but have remained in the air since COVID-19 gripped the world two years ago. Ghost flights are a point of contention in Europe this week, as airlines complained that they’ll be forced to fly more of them as air travel took another dip.
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that the company was cancelling more flights than expected this winter, a result of the omicron variant surging in Europe. And it would cancel even more if not for the way airports allocate gates.
“Because of the reduced demand in January, we even would have cancelled considerably more flights. But in winter, we will have to carry out 18,000 extra, unnecessary flights, just to secure our takeoff and landing rights,” Spohr said, adding that flights in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Belgium were particularly affected.
Lufthansa wasn’t the only airline that said they’d fly more ghost planes in the coming months. “From now until March, we have to carry out 3,000 flights, mainly within Europe,” Maaike Andries, a spokesperson for Brussels Airlines, told the Brussels Times. “We would rather cancel them, and they should also be avoided for the sake of the environment.”
But Andries added that when the number of flights falls below the minimum needed to retain take-off and landing rights, it’s a problem, as “such slots are essential for an airline.” And there’s the rub: Airlines are betting on the market rebounding and don’t want to fall behind their competitors. They’re willing to burn the fuel in the short-term, even it comes with catastrophic impacts on the climate.
The airport trade body Airports Council International (ACI) EUROPE contested European airlines’ claims, though, and affirmed the European Commission’s position on airport slot thresholds (airlines must currently operate 50% of slots or risk losing them, rather than the pre-pandemic 80% standard). The 80% threshold was suspended in March 2020, and the 50% threshold is set to expire at the end of March 2022, though that expiration may be pushed to the end of summer 2022, the Brussels Times reported.
“A few airlines are claiming they are forced to run high volumes of empty flights in order to retain airport slot usage rights. There is absolutely no reason why this should be the reality,” said Olivier Jankovec, the director-general of ACI EUROPE, in a press release. “Talk of ghost flights, and of their environmental impacts, seems to hint at a doomsday scenario which has no place in reality. Let’s stick to the vital task of recovering and rebuilding together.”
After the 50% threshold was announced, the director-general of the International Air Transport Association described the decision as “out of touch with reality.” The association, which represents nearly 300 airlines that comprise 82% of global air traffic, had estimated international travel would be about 34% of 2019 levels by the end of 2021 — and that was when the omicron variant was just a twinkle in the pandemic’s eye.
It’s not just an economic headache, but an environmental embarrassment. Air travel is also incredibly damaging to the climate, with responsible roughly 2.4% of global carbon pollution pre-pandemic. You could argue that the flights full of people at least had a purpose to get people to and from a location, but the ghost flights saving slots at airports for some unforeseen future.
This week marks two years since the World Health Organisation reported a cluster of pneumonia cases that would come to be identified as COVID-19. And we’re still flying empty planes, keeping the seats warm for industries that won’t fully come back until the pandemic is truly over.