More than 5,000 completely empty passenger flights have flown to or from UK airports since 2019, the Guardian can reveal.
A further 35,000 commercial flights operated almost empty since 2019, with less than 10% of seats filled, according to an analysis of Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) data. That makes a total of about 40,000 “ghost flights”.
In one quarter, for example, 62 empty planes left Luton Airport for Poland, while in another, Heathrow saw 663 near-empty flights to and from the US. Both quarters were during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Air travel generates more carbon emissions per hour than any other consumption activity and is dominated by a minority of frequent flyers, making it a focus of climate campaigns. They called the ghost flight revelations “shocking” and said a tax on jet fuel was needed and plans to expand the airport should be questioned. The UK government describes ghost flights as “damaging to the environment”.
Why ghost flights work remains unclear. Only the airlines know the reasons, but they do not publish data explaining the practice. Ghost flights may take place to meet the airport’s use-it-or-lose-it rules, although they were suspended during the height of the pandemic. Other reasons given by airlines include flights for repatriation of Covid or repositioning of aircraft. But this could not be verified and campaigners said more transparency was needed.
The new figures provide the most complete picture yet of the number of ghost flights in the UK, as previous figures only counted international departures. Now includes international arrivals and flights within the UK. The CAA will now publish this data quarterly, as a result of a series of FoI requests by the Guardian.
“Releasing this data is a step in the right direction, but we need more transparency to understand why these inefficient, polluting practices continue, and to hold the major airline culprits accountable,” said Tim Johnson of the Environmental Defense Federation in aviation. “Given the climate emergency, it will reveal that so many near-empty planes were burning fossil fuels and adding CO2 the build-up in the atmosphere is quite shocking.”
A spokesman for the Department for Transport said it would work with the CAA to monitor aircraft occupancy and seek greater transparency on ghost flights.
The data shows an average of 130 completely empty flights per month since 2019. The number of empty flights remained at a similar level before, during and after the pandemic travel restrictions, with the second highest level in the second quarter of 2022. This suggests the reason for airlines choosing to fly empty planes was unrelated to the impact of Covid on aviation.
Half of the empty flights were within the UK, with the top seven airports accounting for two-thirds of the total, led by Birmingham with 1,455, Luton (1,307) and Bristol (758). The number of empty flights does not correlate with the total number of flights at each airport, suggesting they may reflect problems on specific routes.
There have been an average of 1,200 near-empty ghost flights per month since the start of 2020, when numbers spiked at the start of the Covid pandemic. Most of them – about 80% – were in or from foreign destinations.
Eight airports, among the UK’s busiest, accounted for around two-thirds of near-empty flights in 2019, led by Heathrow (10,467), Manchester (3,309), Gatwick (2,766) and Stansted (2,197). Edinburgh and Glasgow had more than 1,500 almost empty flights.
Alethea Warrington, from climate charity Possible, said: “This shocking new data on ghost flights is yet another example of how the airline industry can’t be trusted to get its emissions on track to tackle the climate crisis.
“After a summer of record runway-melting heat, this reckless carbon spending by airlines flies in the face of those feeling the full brunt of our warming world,” she said. “To end this for good, it’s time to start taxing kerosene to discourage unnecessary emissions.”
A spokesman for Airlines UK said: “Millions of flights arrived and departed from the UK between 2019 and 2022, with only a small proportion operating without or with few passengers and for various operational reasons caused by the pandemic.
Airlines refused to operate ghost flights to keep slots. The usual 80:20 rule, which means that 80% of flights on a route must be in service to keep valuable slots, applies only to the busiest airports and has been suspended since late March 2020 due to the pandemic. It was reintroduced as the 50:50 rule in October 2021 and increased to 70:30 from the end of March 2022.
Some airlines have said some ghost flights have taken place during the pandemic to fly Covid-related supplies on passenger planes. However, CAA data records fewer than 300 flights since the start of 2020 with cargo but no passengers.
A spokesman for Birmingham Airport said: “Flight occupancy has fallen during the pandemic due to travel restrictions. During this time flights to Birmingham included British nationals returning from “red list” countries, PPE and Afghan refugees.
A spokesman for Luton Airport said reasons for the high number of ghost flights included Covid travel restrictions and regulatory requirements regarding aircraft airworthiness and pilot licensing. “Following the lifting of all travel restrictions, the average passenger load per flight has returned to 88 percent this summer,” he said. Aircraft relocation and maintenance were among the reasons Bristol Airport gave for its ghost flights.
Heathrow is the UK’s busiest airport and had the highest number of near-empty flights. A Heathrow spokesman said: “At one point [during the pandemic] when the industry was losing billions, no operator would operate an aircraft that was not commercially viable or had no operational need. With borders closed to passengers, airlines switched to cargo operations, delivering vital medical supplies to the country.
Anna Hughes, from the campaign group Flight Free UK, said: “Putting tens of thousands of empty or near-empty aircraft into the air during the climate crisis is a huge waste of money and an unnecessary source of emissions. It makes a mockery of people’s efforts to reduce their own emissions. If it makes business sense for airlines to do that, there’s something wrong with the business model.”
An Airlines UK spokesman said: “UK airlines are fully committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. As well as filling our flights as much as possible, we are making ‘jet zero’ a reality by modernizing our airspace to further reduce inefficiencies, using at least 10% sustainable jet fuel by 2030 and driving the development of zero-emission commercial aircraft.
Johnson said: “Several reasons have been put forward for the near-empty flights during the pandemic, but providing figures for 2019 – a record year for passengers at UK airports – highlights a wider problem. The figures also show that of the 50,000 planes that arrived or departed from Heathrow and Gatwick alone in 2019, less than half were full. This must cast doubt on these airports’ claims that they are indeed full and need to be expanded, as well as their claims that they are responding to the urgency of climate challenges.
All flights in the CAA data are commercial passenger flights and aircrew training flights are not included. There have been thousands of ghost flights to oil rigs, but these were not included in the Guardian’s analysis. The CAA figures also state Bournemouth Airport has 933 empty flights, but the airport says the vast majority of these flights were non-commercial flights operated by the airport’s tenant company.