Peak Ghost Flying: Carrier Operates 3,000 Unnecessary Flights to Keep Airport Slots

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Toward the end of 2020, when it became clear that the international health crisis wouldn’t just go away in a matter of weeks, major airline carriers started to devise strategies to keep their businesses from shuttering. These included repurposing airplanes, monetizing the airplane experience, and operating what has come to be known as ghost flights. A ghost flight is, more often than not, a flight to nowhere. The airplane takes off and lands at the same airport, either with passengers inside or empty. Another example of a ghost flight is when the aircraft moves from point A to B without passengers or only with a handful of them on board, just for the sake of maintaining landing and takeoff rights at the airport. The purpose of a ghost flight is to keep operations afloat, recoup some losses, and not lose airport rights. The not-so-immediate effect of a ghost flight is in the huge carbon footprint of each flight, which, in this case, is unnecessary in the sense that it doesn’t transport paying customers. This phenomenon is happening all across the world but is now being highlighted with Brussels Airlines, a Lufthansa company that operated no less than 3,000 ghost flights this winter alone. According to The Bulletin, citing local media, this was done so that the carrier wouldn’t lose airport slots. As per amended EU regulations, airlines must operate 50% of their scheduled flights to not lose these slots. The previous quota was of 80%, but it was reduced to allow struggling carriers to survive once the health crisis crippled the aviation industry. Even with the reduction, the number of ghost flights has increased. Lufthansa, which owns Brussels Airlines, reported 18,000 such flights during the same period, including the aforementioned 3,000. The company estimates 33,000 canceled flights by March 2022. The environmental and economic impact of this new and very negative trend is tremendous, which is why the Belgian federal government is reaching out to the European Commission for a further lowering of the quota. At the end of 2020, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) was saying that the year had been the worst in the history of the aviation industry, bar none. That may have been the case, but the industry is far from seeing the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.