Thanks to the Covid pandemic, demand for flights plummeted, and as a result, many planes were flying empty or with very few passengers. However, not only is this increasingly expensive for airlines and a drain on resources, but it is also costly to the environment. According to an analysis from the environmental pressure group Greenpeace over 100,000 so-called “ghost” flights in Europe are causing damage equivalent to the yearly emissions of more than 1.4 million cars. So why is this happening? And how can we stop it?

This is especially important as even though demand has increased after pandemic restrictions have been lifted empty flights are still an issue. According to the Guardian, between October and December 2021, approximately 500 flights that were empty or had less than 10% of passenger capacity flew from the UK every month.

Where is the Problem?

The reason that airlines are having this problem is that the aviation industry is engaged in a high-stakes game that CNN describes as more lucrative than anything you will find in Las Vegas.  Even when passengers are not booking, airlines still need to protect their slots; their scheduled time on valuable routes.

Slots are extremely valuable for airlines. The way it works is this; at many of the busiest airports, the demand for flights outstrips the capacity of the airports in terms of space inside terminals for passengers as well as the availability of runways for flights. Because of this, capacity at these airports is divided into slots that have to be purchased by the airline from the airport. Each slot provides a scheduled time period whereby an airline will be provided the facility to land, for its passengers to disembark, take on a new set of passengers, and take off. Airlines then have to plan their flights on the basis of the slots that they have purchased.

Welcome to Heathrow Airport
Heathrow is one of the world’s busiest airports with the most sought after slots | © AP

Arranging flights on the basis of slots purchased is very time-consuming and difficult. This is because, for example, the time slot that has been obtained from the departure airport has to be coordinated with the slot from the destination airport so to speak. All of this can take many months. In addition, certain time slots are highly prized. For example, early morning slots are seen as hot property because business travellers who travel to a particular place in the morning and arrange for a return flight in the evening that same day would be poised to take up a flight if it offered that opportunity.

As the system is so difficult to organise and administer, rules are laid down in order to minimise the time spent to arrange and/ or re-arrange routes. These rules are known as the Worldwide Airport Slot Guidelines which are published jointly by the IATA (International Air Transport Association), Airports Council International, and the Worldwide Airport Coordinators Group. The aim of these rules is to deliver transparency, certainty, consistency, and sustainability for the benefit of airlines, airports, and consumers.

Part of the rules laid downstate that if an airline successfully uses its slot at least 80% of the time, it is allowed to retain the slot for the flowing season. This means that when slots are allocated every six months (for the summer and winter seasons), they do not have to spend more time re-arranging every slot. As a result of this, airlines are prepared to keep empty flights in the air in order that they can continue to retain their precious slots. So what would be the solution?

The Solution

Perhaps reducing the red tape at times of crisis such that the 80% rule does not have to be adhered to. The Air France- KLM group, have stated that they are seeking the current situation to be taken into account by European regulators so that airlines can best adjust their flights to the demand from consumers.

KLM planes on stand
KLM is campaigning for greater flexibility in the rules | ©: Miguel Angel Sanz

It seems that this would be the only workable solution to beat a problem that is ultimately an environmental one that would affect all of us. There is obviously a lot of money involved. To purchase an early morning slot from London Heathrow, which has the most valuable slots, would be 19 million pounds. To conclude, therefore, regulators need to get together to find a solution that puts environmental concerns first so that resources are not wasted and that environmental concerns are prioritised.

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