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Why are 500 ghost flights leaving UK airports every month?

Empty planes are causing horrific damage to the planet for no reason at all

Ed Cunningham
Written by
Ed Cunningham

Ooh a ghost flight. Sounds scary, doesn’t it? You’d be forgiven for thinking they were a kind of theme park ride or something from Ghostbusters. But in reality, they’re actually much scarier – or they are for the planet, at least.

So what is a ghost flight, exactly? Well, they’re defined as passenger planes flying either without any passengers or with under 10 percent of capacity. Aside from the pilot, they’re essentially empty. According to the Guardian, almost 500 flights of this kind left the UK every month between October and December 2021.

Now, to you or I, the very idea of ghost flights probably sounds monumentally pointless. After all, why fly planes that aren’t carrying anyone? Flying is already awful for the environment, and so empty flights seem totally unnecessary, to say the least.

Airlines, however, would argue that they have their reasons. Many airports require airlines to run at least 80 percent of flights in order to keep their landing slots. If they run any less than that – even during times of reduced demand like a pandemic – they feel obliged to run empty planes to keep those landing slots.

In the pandemic that rule was suspended, before being reintroduced with a 50 percent threshold in October 2021. However, this didn’t actually have that much of an impact on the number of ghost flights. As the travel industry still recovers from the pandemic, plenty of airlines continue to run largely empty planes. 

It seems obvious to say that if the world wants to achieve net zero emissions, helping to slow global warming and avoid climate disaster, cutting out ghost flights (and reducing the amount of flying in general) should be high on the agenda. If you live in the UK, there’s currently a parliamentary petition going around calling for reform on landing slots and ghost flights. Find out more about that here.

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