Did you know, right now, there are hundreds of airplanes flying around completely empty, polluting the air space? You probably didn’t know this was going on until last month, when Lufthansa made its ghost flight stats public. In December of 2021, Lufthansa admitted it had flown more than 21,000 airplanes sans passengers, just to maintain takeoff and landing rights at airports in Europe.

Why are airplanes flying empty?

The network of airports around the world only have a certain number of “lanes” for airlines to inhabit for takeoff and landing. In order for an airline to maintain their rights to land at an airport, they have to maintain a certain number of scheduled flights. Generally speaking, airlines are required to use 80% of their “slots’ at a given airport or lose that slot.

The pandemic meant that for a time, these “slot” requirements were waived for airlines flying in Europe. But now, slowly, the percentage requirement is slowly returning. By the middle of 2022, most airlines are expected to be at nearly 75% capacity once again.

Ghost flights are a business decision

The older, legacy airlines want to hang onto their slots, while the younger, more nimble air carriers are trying to break into some of the airports they’d been shut out of in the past, and see this as an opportunity.

When the pandemic started disrupting the air travel industry in 2020, the number of ghost flights started to climb. And after a few months rebuilding, the crazy contagious Omicron variant has knocked the wind out of the airline business, once again. Whole flight crews are out sick, and airlines have had to cancel flights to deal with the COVID-19 quarantine policies.

How do empty flights impact the environment?

If flying empty airplanes around the globe sounds shockingly weird, consider also the impact to the environment. Climate change activists are incensed with the practice, and fear that the number of empty flights is much higher than anyone knows. The other airlines have not disclosed their ghost flight statistics, after all.

Greenpeace estimates that if the airlines servicing Europe are all at the same ghost flight level as Lufthansa, the carbon emissions equals the output of 1.4 million automobiles. Think about that for a minute. The climate crisis is real, and the air travel industry has made a commitment to green practices. What is wrong with this picture?

Are ghost flights this big of a problem?

A number of petitions are circulating, calling on the commercial aviation industry to make some changes to eliminate this wasteful, “slot” managed system. But the situation is murky. Some industry experts say the problem is overblown, more of a P.R. problem than a legitimate concern. And still others will tell you that the flight demand into major airports dictates the necessity of the slot system. In fact, more than 200 airports around the globe use some version of this system to help manage and regulate flight demands.

What’s the ghost flight solution?

We’re not sure there is a good solution to this problem. The legacy airlines can absorb the short-term financial losses that flying empty planes around will cause, and they’re gambling that pre-pandemic air travel will return at some point.

Flying ghost planes allows these larger air carriers to maintain their control of the skies. So, at least for now, they’re probably going to continue to take that financial hit in order to keep their “slots” for takeoffs and landings.

We all have a vested interest in the climate crisis, and coming up with ways to be more responsible as consumers. We’ll keep bringing you information on this story as it develops. Until then, how do you feel about ghost flights? Do you think the aviation industry should come up with a better way of managing airport capacity? Let us know what you think!

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