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Weird and not wonderful: Covid-caused 'ghost flights'
Airlines fly empty planes in an attempt to retain valuable landing slots
(A native of England, Matthew Diebel is veteran of NBC News, Time, USA Today and News Corp, among other organizations. Having spent part of his childhood next to one of the world's fastest bodies of water, he is particularly interested in tidal power.)
Covid-19, in addition to its searingly tragic health consequences, has had a huge effect on human and economic behavior. Working from home. Widening political gaps. Online learning. Seesawing supply chains.
But perhaps nothing wackier has come out the pandemic than the practice of airlines — mostly in Europe — of flying empty planes in an attempt to keep landing slots at key airports. These so-called ghost flights not only cost extra money, much of which comes from Covid-spurred (and taxpayer-funded) government subsidies, but also, of course, increase aircrafts’ considerable per-person pollution rates.
In normal times, airlines have to use their slots at airports 80% of the time or risk losing them. The EU then reduced this to 50% after Covid hit, but carriers have complained that this is still a high barrier to overcome while also pointing out the environmental consequences of being compelled to operate empty flights. For instance, Carsten Spohr, CEO of German flag-carrier Lufthansa (DLAKY), said his company will have had to do 18,000 unnecessary journeys this winter to secure takeoff and landing rights, adding that flights in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Belgium were particularly affected. Meanwhile, a subsidiary, Brussels Airlines, said it was having to put on 3,000 empty flights from January until March, reports The Brussels Times.
Adding fuel to the fire, as it wont to do, is upstart Irish airline Ryanair (RYAAY), known for its low fares — and accompanying add-on fees (there’s even a “boarding pass reprint fee”) — has slammed higher-cost Lufthansa for its attempt to hold onto its slots. “Lufthansa loves crying crocodile tears about the environment when doing everything possible to protect its slots,” Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said in a statement, adding that the slots be given to lower-cost airlines. The bargain-basement carrier has also accused Lufthansa of using a 9 billion euro ($10.2 billion) coronavirus bailout it received from the German government to stifle competition, reports Bloomberg.
Airports Council International (ACI), the governing body, says carriers can ask for exceptions. “Airlines can at any point present the case to their slot-coordinators … allowing them to effectively use their allocated airport slots for less than 50% of the time,” the organization said in a press release. “Talk of ghost flights, and of their environmental impacts, seems to hint at a doomsday scenario which has no place in reality,” added ACI director general Olivier Janovec.
It's almost enough to make you drop your bag of peanuts.