UK aviation industry under fire for thousands of 'ghost flights'

01 March 2022 2 min. read
More news on

The UK has hosted around 10% of Europe’s ‘ghost flights’, as the commercial aviation sector faces a backlash for wasting resources. Even amid the travel restrictions of the pandemic, airlines operated more than 14,000 empty flights between 2020 and 2021.

The global aviation industry has long been one of the major focuses for climate action. Today, the sector accounts for roughly 3% of global carbon emissions, and research suggests it will produce more than 25% by 2050 if left unchecked. With the point of no return fast approaching, where the climate reaches a tipping point that leads to a broader environmental collapse, that cannot remain unchallenged.

As such, pressure for aviation to go green has mounted from consumers, regulators, competitors and other emission-heavy sectors that have made big strides towards sustainability.

UK aviation industry under fire for thousands of 'ghost flights'

For all its obvious challenges for the aviation sector, the pandemic seemed to supply at least one ‘positive’; with the world’s travellers grounded amid world-wide lockdowns, there would surely be a positive impact on the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by aviation.

Not so, according to new data from aviation specialist TailHail. According to the researchers, UK airlines are usually required to use their ‘airport slots’ at venues like Heathrow or Gatwick for a minimum of 80% of the time – or risk losing them. In order to help airlines remain competitive amid the crisis, the industry paused this regulation during the pandemic, when travel restrictions were imposed.

But even then, UK data covering the pandemic period shows that many airlines still staffed empty journeys – or ‘ghost flights’ – negating much of the potential positive climate impact the situation might have had.

Almost 14,472 ghost flights took place in the UK between 2020 and 2021 – part of more than 100,000 across Europe’s skies. But worse was still to come, as when travel restrictions lifted, so did many of the changes to airport slot use. When ‘business as usual’ was resumed, many travellers remained wary of the health risks posed by public life, or the potential return of restrictions. As a result, in 2021, while passenger numbers from Heathrow alone fell from 76 million per year, to just 19.4 million, the number of flights leaving the airport did not reflect the change.

A press release on TailHail's findings noted, "Although the government has extended alleviation of airport slots usage rules with adjusted ratio of 70:30 for the summer 2022 season, it is likely there will still be a high amount of ghost flights."

At the same time, while global commercial travel has diminished 52% since the beginning of the pandemic, TailHail found there had been a steep consumer shift towards the use of private aviation. Worldwide, the number of private jet flights increased by 16% compared to pre-pandemic levels, while the number of flights in 2021 represented a further 54% increase on those seen in 2020. Empty legs and repositioning flights are also an issue in the private jet sector – exacerbating the issue further.