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Updated Feb 23, 2022

Thousands of 'ghost flights' have left the UK since the start of the pandemic

Almost 15,000 'ghost flights' have departed from the UK according to official figures.

Ghost flights are those with no passengers or less than 10% of passenger capacity. The flights operated from all 32 airports listed in the data, which has been hidden from public viewing.

The data showed that:

  • Heathrow was top, with 4,910 ghost flights between March 2020 and September 2021;
  • Manchester and Gatwick were the next highest;
  • there was an average of 760 ghost flights a month over the period, although the data only covered international departure and not domestic flights.

The high number of ghost flights have angered climate campaigners, and German airline Lufthansa warned it would have to fly 18,000 "unnecessary" flights by March to keep its landing slots at airports. Under current rules, airlines lose their slots if they are not sufficiently used.

Nevertheless, during the pandemic the rules that had required 80% of slots to be used were completely suspended. Despite airlines not having to operate flights to retain the slots, they still flew 14,472 ghost flights.

Aviation Minister, Robert Courts, produced the data in response to a parliamentary question, and stated that flights may operate with low numbers for a range of reasons.

He said: "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 who asked the question, Alex Sobel, commented: "To really tackle the climate emergency we need to ensure that our aviation sector is as efficient as it can be with its carbon output".

Anna Hughes at Flight Free UK added: "At a time of climate emergency we need to be drastically reducing our use of fossil fuel, not burning it in empty planes".

Slot rules were partially restored in October 2021, requiring 50% usage, and this will rise to 70% at the end of March. Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic told the Guardian that although they did not operate ghost flights to retain slots, the increase in the required slot usage would lead to low-occupancy flights.

Tim Johnson at the Aviation Environment Federation said: "Slots at congested airports can exchange hands for millions of pounds each so there are very strong incentives for airlines to keep using them, even when passenger demand is very low. The government should rule out airport expansion and instead focus on slot reform and other efficiency improvements".

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