Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, nearly 15,000 ‘ghost flights’ have departed from the UK, angering those who campaign for climate change due to the unnecessary CO2 emissions.

The number of ghost flights is from a total of 32 UK airports, the most of which were operated from Heathrow with 4,910 ghost flights operated between March 2020 and September 2021. 

International flights leaving the UK with less than 10% of passenger capacity filled © PA Graphics
International flights leaving the UK with less than 10% of passenger capacity filled © PA Graphics

What is a Ghost Flight?

The term’ ghost flight’ refers to the operation of flights despite the aircraft having minimal (less than 10% of seat capacity) or no passengers at all.

The reason behind airlines choosing to operate ghost flights is because of an EU regulation dating back to 1993, stating that airlines are required to operate a certain percentage of their scheduled flights in order to retain their take-off and landing slots at airports.

With the damaging effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the travel and aviation industry came stricter border controls, lockdowns and cancelled flights, as airlines had to decide whether to operate a portion of their flights to keep their airport privileges.

The Stats

In 2019, 4.5 billion people travelled on an aeroplane, resulting in 915 million tonnes of CO2 emissions being produced globally. In the same year, aviation accounted for 8% of the UK’s emissions. The UK government predicts that UK airports will see a rise of 230 million passengers by 2050.

However, with the rise in the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) by airlines and efforts to produce hydrogen-powered jet engines, the aviation industry’s carbon footprint is set to improve slightly. Currently, the global aviation industry accounts for 2.1% of human-induced carbon dioxide emissions.

The Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) has been campaigning on the climate impacts of the aviation industry since 1975. As outlined on their website, they aim to protect the environment, public health and quality of life through securing policies and measures that ensure effective limits on noise, emissions and other environmental impacts from the aviation sector.

Director of the Aviation Environment Federation, Tim Johnson stated:

Information [on ghost flights] is hidden from public view, with airlines avoiding scrutiny by claiming the data is proprietary. No doubt airlines fear reputational damage, but the public and consumers should be informed. It shouldn’t take a parliamentary question to expose the scale of this wasteful practice.

The number of flights may be small in comparison to the overall total, but the effects on our climate add up when you consider the average short-haul flight emits between 13 and 20 metric tons of CO2,

Labour MP, Alex Sobel stated:

To really tackle the climate emergency we need to ensure that our aviation sector is as efficient as it can be with its carbon output.

At a time of climate emergency we need to be drastically reducing our use of fossil fuel, not burning it in empty planes.

However, Chief Executive of Heathrow Airport, John Holland-Kaye, noted that many of the low passenger capacity-filled flights were often used to transport cargo. He stated:

If you were flying PPE from China or UK exports into the US while those markets were closed (to leisure travel), you would fly them on a passenger plane and you might only have a couple of passengers on board.

Given how tight finances are, nobody is flying a plane unless it is economically viable. This is actually about keeping the UK supply chain going while borders are closed for passengers.

Have you travelled on a flight with few passengers on board and what do you think of the climate implications of ghost flights? Let us know in the comments below.

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