Why Are European Airlines Flying So Many Empty 'Ghost Flights'?

Legacy airlines don't want to give up their slots. They should.

Empty airplane

Rob Melnychuk / Getty Images

A new Greenpeace analysis finds that at least 100,000 “ghost flights” may be flown this winter in Europe alone. In its press release, titled “Pointless ‘ghost flights’ in EU cause climate damage equal to 1.4 million cars,” Greenpeace explains:

"Over 100,000 ‘ghost flights’ in Europe are doing damage to the climate equivalent to the yearly emissions of more than 1.4 million cars, according to new analysis by Greenpeace. Airlines across Europe are operating empty or near-empty flights in order to retain valuable take-off and landing slots at airports, as required by an EU regulation dating back to 1993."

Greenpeace also refers to an earlier article where the head of Lufthansa complains about having to run 18,000 empty flights because the European Union's regulations insist on it: "While climate-friendly exceptions have been found in almost every other part of the world during the pandemic, the EU does not allow it." Some might be shocked to learn that Lufthansa boss Carsten Spohr cares about being climate-friendly—after all, he runs an airline.

Greenpeace is shocked too, and its spokesperson says: “We’re in a climate crisis, and the transport sector has the fastest-growing emissions in the EU – pointless, polluting ‘ghost flights’ are just the tip of the iceberg. It would be irresponsible of the EU to not take the low-hanging fruit of ending ghost flights and banning short-haul flights where there’s a reasonable train connection.”

Meanwhile, I am shocked to see an organization like Greenpeace singing from the same hymnbook as the head of an airline. What's going on here? To find out, we asked Dan Rutherford, the shipping and aviation director for The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). I wondered why there was this regulation in the first place that originally required airlines to use 80% of their takeoff and landing rights (slots), which was reduced to 50% because of the pandemic and goes back to 64% in March. Rutherford explains:

"These slots are grandfathered for free to legacy carriers, with the requirement that they use them. Low-cost carriers want them, so to block them out legacy carriers fly empty planes around. The EU has relaxed the requirement during COVID, but every time they try to reinstate it, the legacy carriers plant a bunch of stories like this. And then enviros jump on."

So Greenpeace is really carrying Lufthansa's luggage here, which wants to have its cake, the free slots, and eat it– and not have to use them all even though they can't fill them. Rutherford notes they shouldn't have this cake at all.

"Legacy carriers have every intention to use the slots eventually. So it’s not a long-term emissions problem. The problem is the free slots. Of course, airlines are dead set against being charged for those, which is how you’d avoid this problem in the first place (auctioning)."

It's still a big emissions problem, but how big? Greenpeace says it's 20 metric tons per flight based on flying "the average standard aircraft (Boeing 747-400 with around 200 seats) and average flight distance (around 900 km)." But nobody is flying 747s with 200 seats for 900 kilometers, and every European airline has either parked or got rid of them because they are so inefficient. I suspect they meant 737-400s, the site they point to as backup lists them too and has similar numbers to the ones Greenpeace suggests in their footnotes.

The planes are also flying empty. We asked Rutherford how much fuel that saved, and he told Treehugger they would be about 30% lower. But he also notes that Greenpeace is actually asking for the wrong thing.

Rutherford says: "The Greenpeace stance is combining something the legacy carriers want (relaxed flight requirements) with something they don’t (ban on short-haul flights). That’s fine; a clearer ask would be to eliminate the slots entirely or at least to auction them (my proposal)."

So what we have here is Greenpeace demanding that ghost flights be stopped, instead of demanding that slots be taken back from the legacy carriers. Given that France is banning short flights and other countries may follow, they probably won't need them all.

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