15,000 ‘ghost flights’ from UK airports left same emissions impact as 1.4m cars


Official figures show that almost 15,000 empty planes known as “ghost flights” – defined as those with no or less than 10% passenger capacity – left UK airports between March 2020 and September 2021

German airline Lufthansa said in January it would have to fly 18,000 “unnecessary” flights by March

When the pandemic struck in 2020, world travel came to a grinding halt as we were confined to our homes.

You’d expect that as airlines didn’t have any passengers and international borders were shut that our plans would have been grounded too.

But according to official figures, almost 15,000 empty plans known as “ghost flights” left UK airports between March 2020 and September 2021.

Another 500 flights a month took off from the UK between October and December last year.

Heathrow, Aberdeen, Manchester, Stansted and Norwich were the top five airports for such flights.

Ghost flights are defined as those with no passengers, or less than 10% of passenger capacity.

Data from the Civil Aviation Authority includes only international flights leaving the UK and not arrivals or any domestic flights so figures could be even higher.

In normal times, the practice is carried out so airlines can hang on to their landing slots at airports, adhering to the 80:20 rule, which requires use 80% of the time.

Any less, and the permit must be handed back.

But after the onset of Covid, the Government suspended the rules, reintroducing them at 50% in October 2021, then ramping them up to 70%.

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Analysis from Greenpeace warned that more than 100,000 ghost flights in European skies this winter will be responsible for damage to the climate “equivalent to the yearly emissions of more than 1.4million cars”.

German airline Lufthansa said in January it would have to fly 18,000 “unnecessary” flights by March.

Anna Hughes, director at Flight Free UK, whose parliamentary petition demanding a ban on such flights has 11,000 signatories, said: “If plans continue to fly empty because they are concerned about ‘use it or lose it’ rules, it doesn’t allow the market to adapt to shifting demand.

“At a time of climate emergency we need to be drastically reducing our use of fossil fuel, not burning it in empty plans.”

Trade body Airlines UK said passenger aircraft have also been widely used as freighters in the pandemic, including PPE and “inaccurately classed as ‘ghost flights’ in this analysis.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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