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‘Ghost Flights’ Have Been Taking Off Across Europe Because of Coronavirus

Completely empty flights have been taking off due to Europe's “use it or lose it” policy for flight slots.

by Alex Lubben
Mar 9 2020, 4:46pm

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“Ghost planes” have been flying around Europe without any passengers during the coronavirus outbreak.

No one’s buying plane tickets — and those who are are donning facemasks and disinfecting their seats — for fear of contracting the virus. But completely empty flights were still taking off and landing, due to Europe's “use it or lose it” policy for flight slots. If airlines don’t have flights during the times allocated to them, they risk losing the spot to a competitor. So they’ve been continuing to fly during the coronavirus outbreak, even though no one’s on their planes.

The policy dates back decades, but on Monday the EU’s transportation secretary wrote to the EU commission to nix the regulations due to concerns over the environmental impact of empty flights. Under those regulations, airlines need to prove that they have the demand to justify their prime-time flights.

The “ghost flights” were literally burning jet fuel for no reason, sending climate-heating greenhouse gases into the atmosphere even though no one’s traveling. Air travel accounts for 2.5% of global carbon emissions and is expected to emit three times what it does now by 2050.

More than 100,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus have been reported. In the U.S., confirmed cases climbed to more than 500 over the weekend, and 22 Americans have died from the infection.

Airlines are feeling the crunch as people avoid long plane trips and take precautions to avoid crowded areas, as the CDC recommends. No one was waiting in line to check in at London’s Heathrow Airport last week. Munich International Airport was just about empty too.

“At the end of last week, we started seeing very sharp declines,” Gary Kelly, the CEO of Southwest Airlines, said on CNBC last week. “It has a 9/11-like feel.”

The industry could take a $113 billion hit if the coronavirus continues to spread, according to the International Air Transportation Association, an industry group that represents airlines. And it’s not the only sector of the economy that’s taking a hit: The New York Stock Exchange stopped trading for 15 minutes to stem a sell-off. Global markets tumbled on Monday morning, with the Dow Jones dropping by a full 7% on open.

Cover: A general view shows empty security counters amid concerns over the coronavirus at the arrival terminal at the Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

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