Ghost Flights: A Longstanding Nightmare for the Airline Industry

Photo: David Suzuki Foundation

LONDON – The new nightmare for the airline industry has just begun, as thousands of empty or near-empty flights have started making ferry trips across major European airports and continue to do so before the winter season ends.

The airlines have coined a term for this name “Ghost Flights”, the complex European regulation airlines must follow.

The airlines have to operate these ‘ghost flights’ to keep their landing and take-off slots at specific airports by operating 80% of its annual scheduled flights, which were later reduced to 50% amid the Covid-19 pandemic and increasing travel restrictions.

The airlines must fulfill 80% (now 50%) of their annual schedule despite there being no or zero travel demand, otherwise, the airline has to risk its ‘right to operate’ from that specific airport.

This regulation of the European Union is forcing airlines to operate flights with no one on board just to keep up with their schedule.

The critics are calling this regulation imposed by European Commission, economic and ecological nonsense as the pandemic is still gripping the airline industry when the travel demand is restricted in order to curtail virus transmission.

The Belgian mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet said that “I have written to the European Commission to relax the rules at least for the time of Covid and to accept that companies do not fly for nothing to keep their rights to land and take off at the main airports because this does not make sense.”

Adding to this, the spokeswoman at Brussels Airlines said, “We are currently seeing a sharp drop in bookings, especially at European destinations where there is normally a lot of business traffic. But we also know that those flights will pick up again as soon as possible. That’s why we definitely want to keep those slots.”

The complexity of EU regulation and the need for Ghost Flights.

Former pilot Mr. Waldo Cerdan explained to RTBF (Radio-télévision Belge de la Communauté française) about the “slot rue” which came into existence in 1990 as an opportunity for the airport to capture efficiency and organize air traffic.

Mr. Waldo further explained that “Inevitably, there are more people who want to come than there are places available. So, there is competition between the companies for slots, which makes them so precious.”

The slot allocation mechanism is examined by the European authorities in each country under the EU every year, with discussions involving the airlines and airports.

The airlines can argue their right to keep existing slots and make claims for new ones according to certain allocation criteria laid out by the European Union Commission.  

Mr. Waldo also explained that “Europe issued a regulation in the early 1990s to increase efficiency and oblige airlines to use at least 80% of the slots they own. The reason for this is to avoid blocking positions and thus preventing competition from coming in.”

Thus, the complexity of the regulations asserts that, if there are slots left at an airport unused, they can be revoked and awarded to other airlines, either those already operating at the airports or others that would like to get a foothold there.

Thus, making airlines ferry flights or empty flights to keep this cycle going on.

Slots, a rare commodity in the Aviation Industry

Post liberalization of the aviation industry in Europe and over the globe, the slots have gained significant importance and shifted their position to the center of the industry.

The slots are regarded as a valuable and increasingly rare commodity, especially at the busiest airports like Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, or London, where there are often more applicants than there are available times.

Mr. Waldo in his reference said that “When the national airline of Belgian from 1923 went bankrupt in 2001, the slots it owned at London airports were sold off and everyone wanted to go to London but it came with a hefty cost of acquiring those slots.”

Photo: Conde Nast Traveller

He further shared that, “when the Brussels Airlines was created out of Sabena’s ashes, its management wanted to keep the treasured slots of Sabena in Africa, which are even today are the strong selling point, but the slots Brussels Airlines had been part of what made Lufthansa interested in assuming ownership of the company.”

Airlines trade slots, and in some airports and states around the world slots can also be sold. This slot trading comes with a heavy price tag. In London, Air France – KLM sold a pair of slots to Middle Eastern carrier Oman Air for a staggering US$75 million in late 2016.

The value of these slots can vary according to supply and demand and is controlled by rarity. Mr. Waldo said “It’s an asset that companies have and want to keep. Without slots, we can’t do business.”

Environmental Impact of Ghost Flights and adaptation to pandemic

As the pandemic has curbed global travel and the climate change and its effects are becoming more pronounced, the critics are questioning the Ghost Flight viability and the regulation of maintaining slot, which is putting adverse effects on the environment.

Noé Lecocq, the climate expert at Inter Environment Wallonie stated:

“If we look at the 18,000 flights that the Lufthansa group will have to operate empty, 18,000 intra-European flights emit roughly 700,000 tonnes of CO2. These 700,000 tonnes of CO2 will cause if we follow the historical trends, the definitive disappearance of two million square meters of additional Arctic ice pack.”

Mr.Lecocq further added that “Not forcing airlines to make these empty flights would be a ‘plus’ for the planet, even if ‘these flights’ would have taken places in the normal way with passengers if the health situation was not as it is and the pollution would have been the same.”

Our take on the “Ghost Flights”

As the world is cruising in the dark clouds of pandemic uncertainties looming over the industry, the new travel restrictions being imposed in the various parts of the world, these slot regulations make the airline industry more vulnerable to statin the ongoing crisis mode.

The cost involved in executing such flights when the business and demand have dampened would send a negative message. Although the Commission has lowered the requirement from 80% to 50%, it still has a huge impact on the industry.

Furthermore, the environmental impacts these requirements leave behind are points of concern, as the world is looking forward to a greener and environmentally sustainable air travel.

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