Revealed: 5,000 empty ‘ghost flights’ in UK since 2019, knowledge exhibits | Airline emissions

Greater than 5,000 empty passenger flights have flown to or from UK airports since 2019, the Guardian can reveal.

Greater than 35,000 industrial flights have been working virtually empty since 2019, with lower than 10% of seats stuffed, in keeping with an evaluation of information from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). This makes a complete of about 40,000 “ghost flights”.

In a single quarter, for instance, 62 empty planes left Luton airport for Poland, whereas in one other, Heathrow noticed 663 virtually empty flights to and from the US. Each quarters have been in the course of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Air journey causes extra carbon emissions per hour than every other shopper exercise and is dominated by a minority of frequent flyers, making it the main target of local weather campaigns. They referred to as the ghost flight revelations “stunning” and mentioned a jet gasoline tax was wanted and airport growth plans must be referred to as into query. The UK authorities has described ghost flights as “destroying the surroundings”.


Why the ghost flight was working stays unclear. Solely the airways know the explanation however they don’t publish knowledge explaining the apply. Ghost flights can run to fulfill the airport’s “use-it-or-lose-it” slot rule, though this has been suspended in the course of the pandemic. Different causes cited by airways embrace Covid repatriation flights or plane repositioning. However this might not be verified and campaigners mentioned extra transparency is required.

The brand new knowledge provides probably the most full image thus far of the variety of UK ghost flights, as earlier knowledge solely counted worldwide departures. Now consists of worldwide arrivals and flights throughout the UK. The CAA will now publish this knowledge quarterly, because of a collection of FOI requests by The Guardian.

“Publication of this knowledge is a step in the correct route, however we want extra transparency to know why these inefficient polluting practices proceed, and to carry the foremost airline criminals to account,” mentioned Tim Johnson on the Aviation Atmosphere Federation. “Given the local weather emergency, the revelation that so many empty planes are burning fossil fuels and including CO2 to the ambiance is sort of stunning.”

A spokesman for the Division for Transport mentioned it could work with the CAA to watch plane occupancy to hunt better transparency on the difficulty of ghost flights.


The info exhibits a mean of 130 fully empty flights per thirty days since 2019. The variety of empty flights remained on the identical degree earlier than, throughout and after the pandemic journey restrictions, with the second highest degree within the second quarter of 2022. This exhibits that the explanation airways select to fly empty planes isn’t in relation to the influence of Covid on aviation.

Half of the empty flights have been within the UK and the highest seven airports accounted for two-thirds of the entire, led by Birmingham with 1,455, Luton (1,307), and Bristol (758). The variety of empty flights doesn’t correlate with the entire variety of flights at every airport, suggesting that they might point out issues on particular routes.

There have been a mean of 1,200 near-empty ghost flights each month for the reason that begin of 2020, when numbers jumped initially of the Covid pandemic. Most of those – about 80% – are to or from overseas locations.

Eight airports, among the many UK’s busiest, accounted for about two-thirds of flights that have been virtually empty since 2019, led by Heathrow (10,467), Manchester (3,309), Gatwick (2,766) and Stansted (2,197). Edinburgh and Glasgow each had over 1500 virtually empty flights.

Alethea Warrington, at local weather charity Potential, mentioned: “This stunning new knowledge on ghost flights is one other instance of how the airline business cannot be trusted with its emissions on the way in which to tackling the local weather disaster.”

“After the record-breaking summer season, the runway-melting warmth, this waste of carbon needed by the airways flying within the face of them really feel full brunt of our international warming,” he mentioned. “To finish this for good, it is time to begin a kerosene tax to forestall pointless emissions.”

An Airways UK spokesperson mentioned: “Tens of millions of flights are arriving and departing the UK between 2019 and 2022, with solely a small fraction working with or without few passengers and for some operational causes pushed by the pandemic.”


Airways have refused to function ghost flights to carry slots. The conventional 80:20 rule, which means that 80% of flights on a route should function to retain invaluable slots, solely applies to the busiest airports and has been suspended for the reason that finish of March 2020 because of the pandemic. It was reintroduced as a 50:50 rule in October 2021 and elevated to 70:30 from the tip of March 2022.

A number of airways have mentioned that some ghost flights passed off when the pandemic flew in Covid-related provides on passenger planes. Nevertheless, CAA knowledge recorded lower than 300 flights for the reason that starting of 2020 carrying cargo however no passengers.

A spokeswoman for Birmingham airport mentioned: “Flight occupancy has fallen in the course of the pandemic on account of journey restrictions. Throughout this era flights to Birmingham embrace British nationals coming back from ‘purple checklist’ international locations, PPE and Afghan refugees.

A spokesman for Luton airport mentioned the explanations for the excessive variety of ghost flights included Covid journey restrictions and regulatory necessities concerning plane security and pilot licences. “After lifting all journey restrictions, the common passenger load per flight has returned to 88% this summer season,” he mentioned. Plane repositioning and upkeep are the explanations given by Bristol Airport for its ghost flights.

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Heathrow is the UK’s busiest airport and has an virtually empty variety of flights. A Heathrow spokesman mentioned: “At one level [during the pandemic] when the business is shedding billions, no operator will fly an plane with out industrial viability or with out operational necessity. When borders are closed to passengers, airways change to cargo operations, delivering important medical provides to the nation.

Anna Hughes, on the marketing campaign group Flight Free UK, mentioned: “Placing tens of 1000’s of empty or near-empty planes within the air in the course of the local weather disaster is a waste of cash and an pointless supply of emissions. It insults individuals’s efforts to cut back their very own emissions. If it makes enterprise sense to airways to do that, there’s something mistaken with the enterprise mannequin.

An Airways UK spokesperson mentioned: “UK airways are totally dedicated to reaching web zero emissions by 2050. Along with filling our flights as a lot as doable, we’re making ‘zero jets’ a actuality by modernizing our airspace to additional cut back inefficiencies, utilizing not less than 10 % sustainable aviation gasoline by 2030 and driving the event of zero emission industrial plane”.

Johnson mentioned: “Plenty of causes have been put ahead for empty flights in the course of the pandemic, however the provision of 2019 knowledge – a report 12 months for airport passengers within the UK – highlights a wider downside. The info additionally exhibits that fifty,000 plane arrived or departed from Heathrow and Gatwick alone in 2019 lower than half full. This could solid doubt each on the claims of those airports that they’re successfully full and on the necessity to broaden and their claims to answer the wants of the local weather problem.

All flights within the CAA knowledge are industrial passenger flights and aircrew coaching flights should not included. There are literally thousands of ghost flights to grease rigs however these should not included within the Guardian evaluation. The CAA knowledge additionally lists Bournemouth Airport as having 933 empty flights, however the airport says nearly all of non-commercial flights are run by constitution corporations on the airport.

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