According to the Government, almost 15,000 ghost flights have left the UK since the pandemic began. These are flights that are flown with few or no passengers on board so that airlines can keep their take-off and landing runway rights.
Yes this is right, amidst a global climate emergency planes are flying unnecessarily to meet pointless targets. For all their talk about Net-Zero and saving the planet, the UK Government is turning a blind eye to this issue. That’s why I have written to the Transport Secretary to ask how he is engaging with airline companies and the European Commission to put an end to this ridiculous debacle.
Read my letter here:
Dear Mr Shapps,
I am writing to you following concerning reports about the prevalence of ‘ghost flights’ – flights that are flown with few or no passengers on board so that airlines can keep their take-off and landing runway rights.
According to your Department, almost 15,000 ghost flights have left the UK since the pandemic began.
Under current rules, airlines lose their valuable slots if they are not sufficiently used. I appreciate that the European Commission temporarily suspended this rule during the height of the pandemic. However, in October 2021 the rule was reinstated at a lower benchmark of 50% and this month, it is set to rise again to 64% until October 2022. Despite this, air traffic has not yet reached pre-pandemic levels. The German airline Lufthansa recently said that it would need to fly 18,000 unnecessary flights by March 2022 in order to keep its landing slots at airports. It is clear that these rules need to be re-evaluated to reflect current air traffic levels and more widely, to reflect the Government’s 2030 Net-Zero climate commitment.
In addition, ghost flights can impact consumer rights. Airlines can operate ghost flights amid travel bans, meaning they don’t need to cancel flights even if booked passengers can no longer travel. Consequently, consumers cannot apply for refunds.
We know that flying is one of the most carbon-intensive activities people can undertake, accounting for around 2.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions. If the Government is serious about tackling the climate emergency, then it should engage with the aviation sector and ensure it is as efficient as it can be with its carbon output.
My constituents in Hornsey and Wood Green are extremely climate-aware and proactive. Issues such as affordable public transport, clean air and green spaces are important to them and I take their concerns very seriously.
That is why I believe it is important to provide the public with affordable, accessible and reliable public transport so that they do not have to fly. Many constituents tell me that due to high train ticket prices, they have no option than to drive across the country or take domestic flights. I believe this was most pertinent during the COP26 summit in Glasgow last year. According to Which?, return flights from London to Glasgow were priced at £46. The cheapest round trip by rail, booked on the same day, was £131.
I would be grateful if you could respond to the raised concerns as well as clarify what discussions you are having with airline companies and the European Commission to tackle ghost flights.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Read the response I received here:
Thank you for your letter of 11 March to the Secretary of State, Rt Hon Grant
Shapps, about ghost flights and the impacts on the environment and
consumers. I am responding as the Minister for Aviation.
I understand your concern about environmentally damaging ghost flights. The
Government acted swiftly to tackle the risk of empty or near empty aircraft
continuing to fly during the COVID-19 pandemic solely to retain their slots and
continues to provide alleviation from normal airport slot rules to prevent
airlines from operating environmentally damaging ghost flights.
As you know, the rules requiring airlines to fly 80% of their slots in order to
retain them for the subsequent season were fully suspended for the Summer
2020, Winter 2020/21 and Summer 2021 slot scheduling seasons. This
means that airlines have not had to fly at all to retain their historic slots rights.
For the current Winter 2021/22 season, the Government has used powers in
the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft (ATMUA) Act 2021 to
introduce a package of temporary measures designed to support the recovery
of the sector and protect air carriers from needing to operate empty or near-empty flights to keep their slots. We set the slot usage ratio for Winter
2021/22 at 50% and allowed airlines to hand back full series of slots before
the start of the season if they are not going to fly them. This provision goes
further than the equivalent alleviation in the European Union for Winter which
does not include a full series hand back.
For the Summer 2022 season, further alleviation is planned which will support
the recovery in passenger demand and give airlines the flexibility not to
operate their slots where there are COVID-19 related restrictions. We will
consult with airlines, airports and aviation industry bodies shortly on whether
further alleviation is needed for the Winter 2022 season and beyond.
There has been recent media coverage suggesting that “almost 15,000 ‘ghost
flights’ have departed from the UK” between March 2020 and September
2021. We are confident that none of these flights were made solely to retain
rights to slots because for almost the entire period full alleviation of the slot
usage rules was in place. Although the Department does not hold data on
why flights may have taken place, it is in no one’s interest for planes to fly
empty, including the airlines themselves. There may be good reasons why
departing flights have operated over the pandemic with a low number of
passengers. For example, to carry vital cargo including medical supplies and
Personal Protective Equipment which has kept the UK supply chain going
while international borders were closed for passengers. There will also have
been flights to help people return home when COVID-19 related restrictions
have been introduced.
It may also be of interest to you that although these slot alleviation measures
are only temporary, as part of the Government’s future aviation policy we are
actively looking at long term reform to the airport slot allocation process.
Regarding your points on decarbonisation, it is critical that the aviation sector
plays its part in delivering the UK’s net zero commitment and the Government
is already supporting a variety of technology, fuel and market-based
measures to address aviation emissions. The Transport Decarbonisation Plan
(TDP) which was published in July 2021 set out the Government’s
commitments and the actions needed to decarbonise the entire transport
system in the UK. It was published alongside the Jet Zero Consultation which
set out our vision for the aviation sector to reach net zero by 2050. We are
carefully considering the consultation responses for the development of our
final Jet Zero Strategy which we aim to publish later this year.
Turning to your comments that many of your constituents are concerned with
high train ticket prices, it is worth pointing out that there are a wide range of
tickets on offer for passengers travelling by train, including some very low-priced fares which allow more people to travel by rail. Like the airline industry,
the rail industry encourages passengers to book early to access low-priced
fares. These are known as Advance fares and are competitive with flight
prices to similar destinations. Passengers can purchase an Advance fare to
travel on a specific train on the day of travel, subject to availability. Where
these fares are available, they will be cheaper than the current “walk-up” fare.
The Department’s aim is to make travelling by rail a modern, convenient, and
accessible experience for all passengers which is why we will be creating a
new public body, Great British Railways, which will run the network in the
I would like to thank you again for writing to me on this important matter, and I
hope that this information is helpful to you. My officials and I will continue to
have regular engagement with stakeholders, as we have had during the
pandemic, and continue to work constructively together on a range of cross-cutting matters.
ROBERT COURTS MP
MINISTER FOR AVIATION, MARITIME AND SECURITY