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Why near-empty 'ghost flights' aren't a major concern for climate campaigners

Misleading headlines about Lufthansa flying thousands of empty planes have been reported in recent weeks.

Image: Shutterstock/NataliAlba

CAMPAIGNERS HAVE QUESTIONED reports about airlines running empty or near-empty flights due to EU airport rules, saying the problem is “a little overstated”.

The EU has come in for criticism on the issue after Lufthansa said it would fly 18,000 “unnecessary” flights this winter as a result of European Commission rules, which state that airlines have to use a certain percentage of slots at airports to avoid losing them.

Climate campaigners took aim at the European Union, including Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg who said: “The EU surely is in a climate emergency mode…” 

Lufthansa subsequently clarified that the flights, described in some publications as ‘ghost flights’, would not be empty but that some would be under-capacity and have “only a few passengers on board”.

But Andrew Murphy, aviation director at NGO Transport and Environment and a member of Ireland’s Climate Change Advisory Council, played down reports and claims.  

“The phrase that’s being used is ‘ghost flights’ which suggests aircraft that are flying empty or near-empty,” Murphy told The Journal

As we understand it, the problem is that many of the flights are loss-making. So the airline isn’t getting the usual load factor of 80 or 90 per cent, meaning its aircraft are flying at a loss.

“Obviously, environmentally, flying planes with fewer passengers is bad.”

The European Commission currently requires airlines to maintain 50% of a slot series to retain historic rights to these slots at airports. This will increase to 64% for this year’s March-to-October summer flight season. The figure stood at 80% before the pandemic. 

However, Murphy suggested that the situation was more about a political battle between legacy airlines and their low-cost counterparts.

Last week, Ryanair criticised Lufthansa’s “crocodile tears” about the unnecessary flights, suggesting that the German carrier should sell the empty seats to customers at low fares.

“At heart, it’s an issue between the legacy and the low-cost carriers. And the commission has changed the rules from 80 to 50%,” Murphy continued.

“There’s also other provisions for extraordinary circumstances which can be used. But Lufthansa and other big airlines would rather cancel the flight, but then they lose their slots.

The low-cost carriers are eager to snap up these slots and get into that space themselves. So there’s a little bit of, I think, maybe some exaggeration by the legacy carriers.

Murphy also said these slot requirements are generally “not really a huge issue” because they exist at “very congested, popular airports”.

“So in normal times, you don’t have this occurrence. It’s really a temporary issue when legacy carriers are running flights that aren’t as full as they would like,” he added.

“It’s perhaps not worth changing European rules for it at the moment and I’m not sure the legacy carriers have quite made the case for any change to the European rules.

“Whether the planes are half-full or 90% full, the problem is they’re burning a fossil fuel, and that fossil fuel remains untaxed, underpriced, and fixing that legislation is much more important than messing around with slots regulation which, in the grand scheme of things, is a pretty minor issue.”

‘Pollution is going up’

Oisín Coghlan, director of Friends of the Earth Ireland, agreed with this view, saying that the bigger issue going forward is reducing flight numbers altogether. 

“There are seven billion people in the world, and they’re not all going to be able to fly in 20 years’ time as much as Irish people fly now,” he told The Journal

“Pollution from airlines is going up and it’s going to have to go down.”

He said headlines about the Lufthansa flights, many of which were shared on social media in the last few weeks, would “make people think ‘what’s the point of me trying to save up for an electric car or thinking about retrofitting or worrying about my recycling or my LED lights?’”.

“That’s certainly frustrating and irritating, but compared to the bigger picture, it is only a drop in the bucket,” he said. 

I think the main question is: how are we going to limit airline emission in the future?

A spokesperson for Lufthansa said that “all 18,000 flights will carry passengers and cargo, so they do not fly “empty”.

“The current slot regulation for the winter schedule 2021/22 in the EU was decided before the occurrence of the Omicron variant and it fits no longer the current pandemic situation,” they said. 

The spokesperson said there should be more short-term exemption rules in place for take-off and landing slots in the EU.

“In this way, many thousands of unnecessary flights with only a few passengers on board can be avoided,” the airline spokesperson claimed.

There is a ‘justified non-use of slots’ exception already in place for when Covid measures “severely impede passengers’ ability to travel”, the commission has said.  

The Lufthansa spokesperson added: “For the whole winter schedule period until end of upcoming March we calculated some 18,000 unnecessary flights. In other regions of the world, such as the USA, slot rules are temporarily suspended due to the pandemic.”

They added that exemptions under a force majeure rule were taken into account in the 18,000 flights “for which no exemption is granted and which are insufficiently booked”. 

“Most of them are operating within Europe and this applies just for the current winter schedule period until the end of March 2022.”

The spokesperson told The Journal that figures on the number of seats filled on passenger planes are only published on a quarterly basis, and that this will not be measured for these “unnecessary” flights. 

“However they are from an economical and thus ecological point of view not viable,” they said. 

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In a statement, the Department of Transport said it has engaged in the EU processes regarding the utilisation rate of slots at EU airports during the pandemic.

“The Department is aware of allegations of so called ‘ghost flights’ by airlines to maintain their slots but have no specific information in this regard,” the statement said.

Belgium’s transport minister Georges Gilkinet wrote to the European Commission urging it to loosen the slot rules, arguing the consequences go against to the EU’s requirement to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. 

Queried whether Minister Ryan would do the same, the department said: “The communication from the Belgian Transport Minister is seeking a revision to the existing rules on slot utilisation and changes to the rules which will be applicable for the Summer ’22 season.

“However, Ireland together with other Member States has called for the Commission to consider maintaining some flexibility for the Winter ‘22/’23 season.”

Green Party spokesperson for transport and climate Brian Leddin said that it’s “concerning” if airlines are operating “flights that are mostly empty purely to maintain the slots at the airports”. 

“It doesn’t seem very sensible and that, in my view, should be looked at,” the TD told The Journal. 

Other airlines

A spokesperson for Ryanair last week said the airline “does not operate ghost flights” and a spokesperson for Aer Lingus did not respond to a request for comment on the matter. 

The company’s CEO Michael O’Leary called on the European Commission to force airlines to release slots “that they do not wish to use”.  

A spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) told AFP earlier this month: “Despite our urgings for more flexibility at the time, the EU approved a 50 percent-use rule for every flight schedule/frequency held for the winter. This has clearly been unrealistic in the EU this winter against the backdrop of the current crisis.” 

He said the commission needed to show more “flexibility… given the significant drop in passengers and impact of Omicron numbers on crewing planned schedules”.

A spokesperson for daa, the operator of Dublin Airport, said its aviation business development and regulatory departments had received no queries regarding ghost flights.

A European Commission spokesman recently said the EU executive believed “the overall reduced consumer demand… is already reflected in a much-reduced rate of 50 percent compared to the usual 80 percent-use rate rule”.

The spokesman said: “The Commission expects that operated flights follow consumer demand and offer much needed continued air connectivity to citizens.” 

Contains reporting from © AFP 2022

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