European airlines fly empty ‘ghost flights’ that emit harmful emissions

A new analysis from Greenpeace shows that at least 100,000 “ghost flights” could be flown in Europe alone this winter. In the press release, titled “Without ‘ghost flights’ in the EU cause climate damage equivalent to 1.4 million cars,” Greenpeace explains:

More than 100,000 ‘ghost flights’ in Europe cause damage to the climate equal to the annual emissions of more than 1.4 million cars, according to a new analysis from Greenpeace. Airlines across Europe are running empty or nearly empty flights to provide valuable start – and landing slots at airports, as required by an EU regulation dating back to 1993.”

Greenpeace also references an earlier article in which the Lufthansa head complains about having to operate 18,000 empty flights because European Union regulations require it: “While climate-friendly exceptions have been found in almost every other part of the world during the pandemic, the EU won’t allow it.” Some might be shocked to learn that Lufthansa boss Carsten Spohr wants to be climate-friendly — after all, he runs an airline.

Greenpeace is also shocked and its spokesman said: “We are 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 for the EU not to use the low-hanging fruit to end ghost flights and ban short-haul flights with a reasonable train connection.”

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

“These slots are given to legacy airlines for free, with the requirement to use them. Low-cost airlines want them, so to block them, legacy airlines are flying around with empty planes. The EU has relaxed the requirement during COVID , but every time they try to restore it, the legacy carriers plant a lot of stories like this. And then the environments jump on.”

So Greenpeace is really carrying Lufthansa’s baggage here, wanting to have its pie, the free slots, and eat them – and not have to use them all, even if they can’t fill them. Rutherford notes that they shouldn’t have this cake at all.

“Legacy carriers are determined to use the slots eventually. So it’s not a long-term emissions problem. The problem is the free slots. Of course, airlines are terrified of being charged for that, and this is how you avoid problem in the first place (auction).”

It’s still a big emissions problem, but how big? Greenpeace says it’s 20 metric tons per flight based on “the average standard aircraft (Boeing 747-400 with about 200 seats) and average flight distance (about 900 km).” But nobody flies 200-seat 747s for 900 kilometers, and every European airline has parked them or got rid of them because they are so inefficient. I’m guessing they meant 737-400s, the site they reference as backup also lists them and has similar numbers to the ones Greenpeace suggests in their footnotes.

The planes also fly 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: “Greenpeace’s stance is a combination of something the old airlines want (eased flight requirements) with something they don’t (short-haul ban). least eliminate them to auction them (my suggestion).”

So what we have here is Greenpeace demanding that ghost flights be stopped, instead of demanding that slots be taken back from the old airlines. Since France bans short flights and other countries can follow, they probably won’t need all of them.

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