Almost 15,000 “ghost flights” have departed from the UK, according to newly revealed official figures.
The ghost flights, defined as those with no passengers or less than 10% of passenger capacity, operated from all 32 airports listed in the data. Heathrow was top, with 4,910 ghost flights between March 2020 and September 2021. Manchester and Gatwick were the next highest. There were an average of 760 ghost flights a month over the period, although the data covered only international departure and not domestic flights.
Flying is one of the most carbon-intensive activities people can undertake and ghost flights have angered those campaigning for action on the climate crisis. The German airline Lufthansa recently warned it would have to fly 18,000 “unnecessary” flights by March in order to keep its landing slots at airports. Under current rules, airlines lose their valuable slots if they are not sufficiently used.
However, during the pandemic-hit period covered by the new UK data, the rules that had required 80% of slots to be used were completely suspended. Airlines did not have to operate flights to retain the slots, but nonetheless flew 14,472 ghost flights.
“Flights may operate with a low number of passengers for a range of reasons,” said the aviation minister Robert Courts, who produced the data in response to a parliamentary question. “Since the onset of the pandemic, the government has provided alleviation from the normal slot regulations. This means that airlines have not been required to operate empty or almost empty flights solely to retain their historic slots rights.”
The Labour MP Alex Sobel, who asked the question and is chair of the net zero all-party parliamentary group, said: “To really tackle the climate emergency we need to ensure that our aviation sector is as…