Air traffic is down
In December 2021, 27,591 aircraft took off or landed at Frankfurt Airport – 890 each day. But this winter, many of them carried no passengers. Lufthansa, Germany’s national airline, headquartered in Frankfurt, admitted to flying 21,000 empty flights this winter, using its own planes and those of its Belgian subsidiary, Brussels Airlines, in an effort to conserve airport slots.
Although anti-airline activists believe that ghost flights are a widespread problem that airlines do not publicly disclose, Lufthansa is so far the only airline to make its own figures public. In January, climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted her disbelief at the scale of the problem.
Unusually, she was joined by voices from the industry. One of them was Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr, who said the trips were “empty and unnecessary flights, just to secure our landing and takeoff rights.” But the company says it can’t change its approach: These ghost flights occur because airlines are required to operate a certain proportion of their scheduled flights in order to maintain slots at busy airports.
According to a Greenpeace analysis, if Lufthansa’s practice of not flying any passengers were replicated across the European aviation sector, it would mean that more than 100,000 “ghost flights” were made in Europe this year, releasing carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to 1.4 million fuel-guzzling cars.
“We are in the midst of a climate crisis, and the transport sector is the fastest-growing emissions sector in the EU,” says Greenpeace spokesperson Herwig Schuster. “Unnecessary and polluting ‘ghost flights’ are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Aviation analysts are divided on the extent of the ghost flight problem. Some believe the problem has been exaggerated and is probably no more widespread than the few airlines that have admitted to operating them. Others say there are probably tens of thousands of such flights in operation, and their carriers refuse to say anything because of the public relations implications.
Global air traffic dropped 60 percent in 2020 from 2019 levels, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). By 2021, passenger numbers were still 49 percent below pre-pandemic levels, and even when the world begins to reopen in 2022, demand is still expected to be 28 to 33 percent below 2019 levels. According to ICAO, the industry will lose about $200 billion, as 1.3 billion fewer passengers will travel in 2022 than in 2019.
Passengers simply won’t fly, but airlines must provide services to keep their valuable airport slots. “If you lose your slot, you’ve lost an asset on your balance sheet,” says aviation analyst David Gleave.