The climate crisis is a pervasive issue and action to combat climate change touches basically every single part of our lives, from what we eat, to how we dress, to how and where we go on holiday.

It’s well known that one of the biggest culprits of carbon emission from human activities is the aviation sector. In fact, data from 2019, showed that taking a long-haul flight generates more carbon emissions than the average person in dozens of countries produces in a whole year.

Many of us trying to reduce our carbon footprints have, alongside other steps like going meat and dairy-free or ditching fast fashion, been cutting down the number of flights we take too. 

Yet, at least 100,000 empty “ghost flights” are set to fly all over Europe over the next few months, according to a Greenpeace investigation.

The deserted planes are flying in order to allow airlines to keep their takeoff and landing runway rights in major airports. 

But, as highlighted by Greenpeace, this could amount to the additional release of up to 2.1 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere — or the same as 1.4 million diesel cars emit in a year.

Their UK Policy Director, Doug Parr, said: “We know that the airline industry puts profit ahead of people and the planet but the absurdity of ‘ghost flights’ takes its recklessness to new heights.”

3 Facts to Know About “Ghost Flights”

  1. At least 100,000 “ghost flights” could be flown across Europe this winter.

  2. They could generate up to 2.1 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions — or as much as 1.4 million average petrol or diesel cars emit in a year. 

  3. The EU Commission currently requires airlines to fly at least 50% of their scheduled flights, which is set to rise to 64% in March.

What Is a Ghost Flight?

A ghost flight is a plane that travels from one airport to another without any, or with extremely few, passengers in it. 

Why Is It Happening?

In the world of planes, airport landing slots are precious commodities and they can’t be used by just anyone with an aircraft. 

EU rules dictate that, in order to be granted and to keep one of these coveted airport landing slots, an airline must have a certain number of scheduled flights take off from them.

In normal times, airlines were required to use 80% of their slots. If the airline failed to meet this quota, they lost their slot. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the European Commission suspended this benchmark because no one was travelling anywhere. 

However, as lockdowns and travel restrictions around the world eased, usage levels have since been upped to 50% and are set to rise again to 64% in March

Lufthansa’s CEO, Carsten Spohr, said that they may have to fly 18,000 “extra, unnecessary flights” to fulfil the quota.

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What Are Environmental Activists Saying About It? 

Unsurprisingly, the activist community is angry. 

Greta Thunberg, tweeted with a message of disbelief: ”Brussels Airlines makes 3,000 unnecessary flights to maintain airport slots” The EU surely is in a climate emergency mode…”

The campaign group Stay Grounded called the empty planes a flagrant example of “bulls**t flights”, a name it gives to non-essential journeys such as short-haul and private jet trips. 

Greenpeace called it “absurd and revolting” while a spokesperson for their European Mobility for All campaign said: “The EU Commission requiring airlines to fly empty planes to meet an arbitrary quota is not only polluting, but extremely hypocritical given their climate rhetoric.”

What Action Can We All Take?

Many have taken to social media to denounce the wasteful flights and the “use it or lose it” policy that requires airlines to operate them. 

You can sign your name, alongside over 6,000 people, on a petition calling on the UK government to end the “ghost flights” and reform historic rights to landing slots.

You can also get involved with the Global Citizen movement and our campaign to Defend the Planet. To tackle the threat of climate change and help reduce its impacts, it really will need every one of us taking action. 

Through our campaign actions, you can call on world and business leaders to take the urgent action and deliver the much-needed financing to both tackle climate change and support vulnerable nations that are already being hit hardest by its impacts. You can also learn more about the individual steps you can take in your life to help reduce your own carbon footprint — and download the Global Citizen app to take our challenges, like going vegetarian or vegan for a week, or to go plastic-free. 

Global Citizen Explains

Defend the Planet

Why Are Empty ‘Ghost Flights’ Flying Over Europe Amid a Climate Crisis?

By Tess Lowery