6th Dec 2023

Greenpeace demands EU end 'ghost flights'

  • Empty airport: Lufthansa will operate some 18,000 ghost flights to keep its slot use requirement, despite having already cut 33 000 flights over the winter season (Photo: Vigo airport)
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Greenpeace wants the EU to scrap rules requiring airlines to maintain flights to airports at the risk of losing their landing slots.

The issue has seen airlines, such as Lufthansa, fly so-called ghost flights, posing questions on damaging emissions amid key proposals by the EU to curb climate change.

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"For us, a ghost flight is a flight that only has a maximum of a couple of passengers and is a flight, which the airline would not operate, without that slot regulation," said Herwig Schuster of the Greenpeace NGO on Wednesday (26 January).

Schuster said such flights were not limited to the EU, noting some long-haul transatlantic flights to the US also had very few passengers.

His comment followed an analysis by the NGO estimating there were over 100,000 ghost flights in the EU, or the equivalent to the yearly emissions of about 1.4 million average diesel or petrol cars.

"This number of flights causes damage to the climate equivalent to 2.1 million tonnes of CO2," noted Greenpeace, in a statement.

The aviation industry is said to be responsible for some 3 percent of global emissions.

The EU had, last July, proposed plans seeking stricter rules on CO2 emissions as well as the use of synthetic fuel blends.

But an EU regulation dating back to 1993 also requires airlines to run at least 80 percent of booked flights to secure their airport slots, leading Lufthansa to fly some 18,000 ghost flights given the impact of Covid.

The slot requirements were reduced to 50 percent for the winter season, meaning the airlines will only have to use 50 percent of a given slot series to preserve their rights.

The European Commission decided to further extend the slot rules to the 2022 summer scheduling season so that airlines will only have to use 64 percent of their slots to retain historic rights.

"Empty flights are bad for the economy and the environment," said European Commission spokesperson, Stefan De Keersmaecker, in an emailed statement.

He said objective of the EU slot relief was to ensure airlines could retain their historic slots without having to fly empty flights when health restrictions prevented passengers from travelling.

He noted airlines can also ask the slot coordinator to not make use of the slot if the airline is unable to operate a route because of severe sanitary measures making passenger travel very difficult.

Meanwhile, the 64 percent rate was assessed against Eurocontrol air traffic figures, forecast this year to be at 88 percent of 2019 levels.

"Even 64 percent is too much," said Greenpeace's Schuster.

The NGO is also demanding a ban on short-haul flights where there is an alternative train connection under six hours.

For its part, the commission says it plans to double high-speed rail activity by 2030 and to triple it by 2050, relative to 2015.

It includes linking high-speed rail services to long haul flights in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Paris.

"This could not only reduce CO2 emissions compared to short-haul feeder flights, but also free up scarce airport capacity and avoid maintaining unprofitable air routes," said the Commission's Keersmaecker.

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