A ghost flight is defined as an airline flight that sets out towards its destination either with no passengers at all or with less than 10 percent of its passenger capacity filled. Ghost flights have been around for years now, but the onset of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) accelerated the growth of ghost flights, as fewer people flew but airlines still ordered their planes to take off anyway. (Related: Air carrier makes thousands of "ghost flights" to avoid losing privileges at major airports.)
The British government has a rule that requires airlines to only allow flights to depart if 80 percent or more of the slots for passengers were filled. But this rule was suspended at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to help the airline industry make some revenue during lockdown.
This means that the rule that required airlines to operate flights to retain their slots and privileges at major airports was also suspended. Nonetheless, Britain's major airlines still flew 14,472 ghost flights, according to the data.
The information was released by Member of Parliament (MP) and Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Transport Robert Courts on Feb. 10. The data were compiled by the Civil Aviation Authority and covered the period from March 2020 to Sept. 2021, right before the government started slowly reinstating its pre-pandemic rules on air travel.
An average of 760 ghost flights occurred every month and 25 every day from March 2020 to Sept. 2021. All 32 airports investigated were hosts to hundreds of these ghost flights.
Heathrow Airport in London, the U.K.'s largest and busiest airport, is the biggest offender with 4,910 ghost flights departing from its terminals between March 2020 and Sept. 2021. This is followed by Manchester and Gatwick airports, with 1,548 and 1,044 ghost flights in the same period, respectively.
Pre-pandemic aviation regulations started being reintroduced on Oct. 2021. Airlines at the time were grounded if they were not able to fill at least 50 percent of their passenger capacity. This requirement will rise to 70 percent at the end of March.
Environmental groups and left-wing politicians have condemned the ghost flights, pointing out that flying is one of the most emission-heavy activities people can undertake, and ghost flights serve no purpose but to allow airlines to retain their slots at airports.
Labor Party and left-wing MP Alex Sobel, chairman of the Net Zero All-Party Parliamentary Group, called for reforms to be passed to turn the aviation industry into an efficient sector of the economy to reduce unnecessary emissions outputs.
"At a time of climate emergency, we need to be drastically reducing our use of fossil fuel, not burning it in empty planes," remarked Anna Hughes, director of the anti-air travel group Flight Free U.K.
"If more than 14,000 empty flights took off from U.K. airports when there was no requirement to retain landing slots, how many more will have taken off since?" said Hughes. "Of course, all flights harm the climate, which is why we also campaign for a reduction in demand, a tax on aviation fuel and more affordable trains. But preventing planes from flying empty should be an easy win for policymakers and the climate."
In response to criticism surrounding the ghost flights, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and EasyJet insisted that they did not operate ghost flights to retain their slots at the country's busiest airports during the pandemic.
"COVID-19 had an unprecedented impact on customer demand, with wide-ranging global restrictions that limited international travel. For three months during 2020, Virgin Atlantic did not operate any passenger flights. Any lower-occupancy flights that operated outside of this window were not 'ghost flights' – they supported the global movement of people including returning foreign citizens and repatriated U.K. citizens," said a spokesperson for Virgin Atlantic.
John Holland-Kaye, CEO of Heathrow Airport Holdings, the company that operates Heathrow and several other airports in the country, said ghost flights were used to transport cargo around the world.
"If you were flying PPE from China or U.K. exports into the U.S. while those markets were closed [to leisure travel], you would fly them on a passenger plane and you might only have a couple of passengers on board," said Holland-Kaye. "Given how tight finances are, nobody is flying a plane unless it is economically viable. This is actually about keeping the U.K. supply chain going while borders are closed to passengers."
Watch this video to learn about the massive changes occurring in the airline industry.
Learn more about how the COVID-19 pandemic forced industries to adapt to the new normal at Pandemic.news.