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Countries Move to Stop Empty "Ghost Flights"

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The near-empty Frankfurt Airport as air travel plunges due to coronavirus concerns.
The near-empty Frankfurt Airport as air travel plunges due to coronavirus concerns.
Photo: Getty

The coronavirus pandemic has put many of the worst things about the global economy into sharp relief. The Trump administration is considering prioritizing oil companies over healthcare, New York is paying people in prison less than a dollar an hour to make state-branded hand sanitizer, and internationally, airlines are flying empty “ghost” flights across Europe, wasting thousands of gallons of greenhouse gas-emitting fuel in the process.

To run flights out of major airports, airlines bid on the best arrival and departure times. Good slots can cost tens of millions of dollars, and if you don’t use your slots, you lose them. So amid tanking flight demands due to the coronavirus pandemic, airlines have kept plane running anyways even if there’s nobody (or barely anybody) on board. For the climate, that’s a travesty: planes can burn five gallons of jet fuel per mile of flight, releasing tons of carbon and other greenhouse gases.


Thankfully, officials are now taking steps to end this absurdity. This week, the European Union suspended their rules requiring airlines to fly 80 percent of their flights to keep their slots.


“This temporary measure helps our industry but it also helps our environment,” EU chief Ursula von der Leyen told reporters. It will relieve the pressure on aviation industry and in particular on smaller airline companies.”

The move followed calls from Germany’s economy ministry and the UK’s Secretary of State for Transport to lift the policy while flight demand is still low. In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration announced this week that it will temporarily waive minimum slot use requirements at American airports. And the Latin American and Caribbean Air Transport Association have asked for relief from international slot use rules, too.

Federal health officials have warned older people and people with chronic, underlying health conditions to avoid non-essential air travel. And according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, if an airline cancels your flight, you will definitely be eligible for a full refund.

The coronavirus outbreak is causing demand for flights to plummet dramatically. Jet Blue has seen a demand drop even more than it did in the wake of 9/11. This isn’t just bad for airline companies—but really, who cares about airline CEOs?—but also for airline workers, who are facing layoffs. Policymakers should make sure they’re protected. Again, maybe governments should ensure they get paid instead of weighing bailing out fracking billionaires.