Should We Be Worried About Ghost Flights?

Do you believe in ghosts…ghost flights, that is? The commercial aviation industry continues to operate ghost flights in light of the ongoing effects from Omicron. While the term may conjure up images of airplanes flown by spooky and ghoulish flight crews, these types of operations refer to an airline flying its aircraft with few or no passengers for the benefit of maintaining highly-valuable airport slots. This financially-rooted tactic has drawn concerns from environmental groups to aviation industry stakeholders alike, albeit for entirely different reasons. Should they be worried?


Weighing the pros and cons

Airlines would rather not fly nearly empty aircraft for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, the financial risk of losing those oh-so-coveted airport slots would have a much higher impact than substantially reduced passenger loads for select routes during a given time period. Simply put, it costs a lot more to buy airport slots than to recover lost passenger revenue on a group of ghost flights.

Airports slots are a highly valuable commodity for air carriers. This is clearly evidenced by a UK House of Commons briefing paper which cites several high-profile deals centered around takeoff and landing slots at London’s Heathrow Airport. How much are we talking about? American Airlines and Oman Air each paid $75 million USD for slots in unrelated deals to ensure maximum continuous operations at this major hub.

EU keeps an eye on slot requirements

Slots are not a new concept. In fact, several key global aviation stakeholders collaborated on creating the Worldwide Airport Slot Guidelines (WASG) in the effort to “provide the global air transport community with a single set of standards for the management of airport slots…”

The European Union (EU) is the governing body for the regulation of airport slots within its jurisdiction and it has been very clear about how the airlines use these valuable commodities. Simply put, if the airline doesn’t use at least 80% of the slots, it will lose them. So, airlines have been very careful to operate their flights using these slots even with reduced passenger numbers as the industry continues to struggle against the debilitating headwinds of the pandemic.

In light of this, the EU opted to temporarily relax the operational requirements for airlines wishing to maintain their hard-to-get slots. Specifically, it enacted this new stance during the winter 2021-2002 season and then announced an extension to the slot relief rules effective until October 29, 2022. However, one caveat is raising the slot threshold to 64 percent in April. In January, we reported on the UK’s own extension of its relaxed airport policy.

Groups point fingers, passengers revel in comfort

There are few indications that ghost flights will stop operating as the pandemic continues. This has brought on considerable consternation from several environmental groups, while on the other hand, some passengers are taking advantage of the comforts provided by sparsely loaded aircraft. One highly publicized example was reported by NPR, where a British teenager was the sole-paying passenger on a flight from London, England to Orlando, Florida.

Opponents have held public protests, funded marketing campaigns and even launched online petitions. High-profile climate advocate Greta Thunberg has used social media to claim that “Brussels Airlines makes 3,000 unnecessary flights to maintain airport slots.”

Even airlines are taking the opportunity to criticize their competitors operating ghost flights. In January, Simple Flying reported how Ryanair EO Michael O’Leary chastised Lufthansa for the German flag carrier’s admission that it would be forced to fly 18,000 ghost flights.

Smoother skis ahead?

The numbers of Omicron cases have been dropping, which is allowing some aspects of the air transport industry to rebound ever so slightly. Does this mean that forecasted conditions are considered to be financially favorable? That depends on several factors, including the number (and severity) of new COVID variants and the traveling public’s confidence. With all of these variables still up ‘in the air’, the likelihood of ghost flights remains. We may see a reduction in these flights, but it is likely that one day soon, you may unknowingly have a ‘ghostly’ aircraft overfly your part of the world.


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