Outrage over airlines’ empty ‘ghost flights’

18.3.2008   (Independent)

Airlines that run empty “ghost flights”, needlessly pumping hundreds of tonnes
of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, should face heavy fines, environmentalists
have demanded.

The Government was being urged to clamp down on the practice after it emerged
that British Airways had flown three long-haul services between London, Hong Kong
and Mumbai last week, even though staff illness meant there were no passengers
on board.

It is estimated that between them the three Boeing 747-400s produced the equivalent
amount of CO2 to that emitted by 200 to 300 motorists in a year.

Tim Johnson, the director of the Aviation Environmental Federation, said the current system of levying air-passenger duty, which charges an environmental
tax of up to £80 per ticket rather than a flat rate per aircraft, provided a “perverse
incentive” for aircraft to fly empty. The system is due to change in November
next year.

“Moving to an aircraft-based duty is an attempt to encourage airlines to a higher
pay load factor, but in the interim a carbon penalty would make up for the shortfall
there would otherwise be pending its introduction,” Mr Johnson said.

BA defended its decision to go ahead with the flights, saying they were carrying
cargo loads and that it was the only way of preventing major knock-on disruption
to passengers expecting to board return flights in India and the Far East, and
of stopping delays to those aircraft awaiting fresh crew. “We operate an extremely
small number of empty flights and, when we do so, we do it in order to minimise
overall disruption. This is the least worst solution to a complex problem,” a
BA spokesman said.

However, while commercial airlines seek to operate at between 80 and 90% capacity,
environmentalists say they can still do better.   According to figures published
by the Civil Aviation Authority, British airlines flew 80 billion empty seat kilometres in 2007.

John Stewart, who is leading the opposition to the creation of a third runway at Heathrow,
which will increase the number of plane movements at the airport by 50%, said:
 “These empty flights, as far as people on the ground are concerned, are still
making noise and as far as climate change is concerned they are still spewing
out CO2.”

The Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, Steve Webb, backed calls for an interim
levy on empty flights. “It is a stop-gap measure to stamp out this abhorrent practice
pending a rationalisation of landing slots at UK airports,” he said.

Outrage over airlines’ empty ‘ghost flights’
see also
Green anger at ‘ghost flights’     (12.3.2007)     BBC
As politicians outline rival visions of a green agenda, an airline has angered
environmental campaigners for flying an empty passenger plane in order to keep
hold of its landing slots.
The British Mediterranean Airways (BMed) round-trip flights between London’s Heathrow and Cardiff International have been taking off  6 days a week since October.     They have
not appeared on departure or arrival boards, none of the 124 tickets were sold
and all passenger seats remained empty.
And to the chagrin of green campaigners more than  5 tonnes of CO2 has been pumped
into the atmosphere on each 140-mile journey.   But why would an airline be prepared
to run hundreds of flights at a loss?
Industry experts said the incident was rare but illustrative of an airline protecting
its highly sought-after landing slots at Heathrow, which have been known to fetch
up to £10m each.
BMed acknowledged the situation was “not ideal” and said it was temporary.   It
disputes reports that the empty flights have cost it £2m, but acknowledges a business
motive lay behind the decision.
The airline started the empty flights after scrapping its service to Tashkent
in Uzbekistan, in the wake of civil unrest.    
The internationally recognised landing slot policy independently administered
at Heathrow by the firm Airport Co-ordination Ltd (ACL) is known as the Use it
or Lose it rule.
An airline needs to make at least 80% use of its allocation over a six-month
session to preserve the entitlement or it risks seeing rivals take over the slot.
There are provisions for airlines not to use slots and still retain rights if
this can be justified on the basis of “unforeseeable” circumstances.     However,
this would normally only cover a short period.
BMed decided it was not practical to formally launch a passenger service just
for a few months.
The airline, which flies to 17 destinations throughout Africa, the Middle East
and Central Asia, says it will start using the slot again for commercial flights
in April 2007.
“Since BMed intends to operate the slot on revenue services during the 2007 summer
and winter seasons, it was necessary to preserve the slot,” said BMed chief executive,
David Richardson.
“Flights to Cardiff represented the most cost-effective way to do this.”       Environmental
campaigners said the flights showed up “anomalies” in the current air tax system.    
“It is a crazy situation but the tax regime supports this kind of behaviour,”
said Richard Dyer from Friends of the Earth.
“If you had a system in place, such as the one the Lib Dems and Conservatives
propose where airlines pay a tax on every plane based on carbon emissions, there
would be a much greater incentive not to run these kind of flights.”
Cardiff International airport, meanwhile, stressed it had no power to refuse
BMed landing slots.
“It would be inappropriate and unworkable for it to act as an arbiter in relation
to the nature of one airline’s operations in comparison to those of other airlines,”
it said in a statement.
An ACL spokesperson said: “No other airlines are doing this. It is not a common
occurrence but airlines are free to use their slots as they wish.”