An empty Swiss Air flight from Munich, Germnay to Zurich, Switzerland in March 2020. Photo: Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo (Getty Images)
Few industries have been more affected by the Covid-19 pandemic than air traffic; with so few people flying for business or pleasure, airlines have started flying “ghost flights” to secure their takeoff and landing slots at airports.
Such flights—with no passengers yet burning fuel on their ghost journeys—were… a well-known 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 have been a point of contention in Europe this week as airlines have complained they will be forced to fly more of them as air traffic dips again.
Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that the company canceled more flights than expected this winter, as a result of the ommicron variant rising in Europe. And it would cancel even more if it weren’t for the way airports assign gates.
“Due to the reduced demand in January, we would have canceled significantly more flights. But in the winter we will have to operate 18,000 additional, unnecessary flights just to secure our take-off and landing rights,” Spohr said, adding that flights in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium were particularly affected.
Lufthansa wasn’t the only airline to say they would be flying more ghost planes in the coming months. “From now until March, we have to operate 3,000 flights, mainly within Europe,” says Maaike Andries, spokesperson for Brussels Airlines. told the Brussels Times. “We prefer to cancel those, and they should also be avoided for the sake of the environment.”
Empty seats of a Lufthansa Airbus A340. Photo: Daniel Roland/AFP (Getty Images)
But Andries added that when the number of flights falls below the minimum required to maintain take-off and landing rights, it’s a problem, because “slots like this are essential for an airline.” And therein lies the problem: airlines are betting on a market recovery and don’t want to fall behind their competitors. They are willing to burn the fuel in the short term, even with catastrophic consequences for the climate.
However, the airport trade association Airports Council International (ACI) EUROPE contested the claims of European airlines and confirmed the European Commission’s position on the slot thresholds at airports (airlines currently have to operate or risk losing 50% of the slots, rather than the prepandemic 80% standard). The 80% threshold was suspended in March 2020, and the 50% threshold will expire at the end of March 2022, although that expiry date could be pushed back to the end of summer 2022, the Brussels Times reported.
“A few airlines claim they have been forced to operate large volumes of empty flights in order to preserve airport slot usage rights. There is absolutely no reason why this should be the reality,” said Olivier Jankovec, ACI EUROPE Director General, in a press release. “Talking about ghost flights and their impact on the environment seems to indicate a doomsday scenario that has no place in reality. Let’s hold on to the essential task of repairing and rebuilding together.”
After the 50% threshold was announced, the Director General of the International Air Transport Association described the decision as “not in accordance with reality.” The association, which represents nearly 300 airlines accounting for 82% of global air traffic, had estimated international travel to be around 34% of 2019 levels by the end of 2021 — and that was when the omicron variant was just a twinkle. in the eye of the pandemic.
It is not only an economic problem, but also an environmental problem. Air travel is also incredibly harmful to the climate, with responsible about 2.4% of global carbon pollution pre-pandemic. You could argue that the flights full of people had at least a purpose of getting people to and from a location, but the ghost flights were saving slots in airports for an unforeseen future.
This week marks two years since the World Health Organization reported a cluster of pneumonia cases that would be identified as covid-19. And we’re still flying empty planes and keeping the seats warm for industries that won’t fully return until the pandemic is truly over.
More: I’ve made peace with flying less
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