Airlines Are Flying An Incredible Number Of Ghost Flights Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

Certain airlines are wasting vast quantities of fuel by flying empty aircraft to various destinations in order to maintain rights to their slots. These flights, nicknamed ‘ghost flights’ are being carried out due to rules around airport slots – something that is especially important at busy airports where a slot at an ideal time of day may be hard to come by.

London Heathrow is the busiest airport in Europe and is well known for being heavily slot restricted. Photo: Getty

According to The Times, these ghost flights have been taking place because of European rules which state that operators can lose their airport slots if they aren’t being used. The rule is that airlines operating out of the continent need to run 80% of their slot allocations. According to policy, if this isn’t done then the airline can risk losing its slots to a competitor.

There were no airlines or airports specified in the reports of ‘ghost flights’.


An outcome of the coronavirus

Demand for flights has fallen drastically around the world due to government restrictions on travel. Additionally, demand is low due to personal precautions and worries around the outbreak. A number of nations have instituted policies that force travelers coming from known outbreak-countries to first be in a non-affected country for 14 days.


The island-nation of Samoa takes this further, requiring arriving passengers to have medical documents certifying a clean bill of health. The policy specifically states that travelers must “undergo medical clearance within (3) days prior to final route to Samoa … All Travelers before entering Samoa are required to be tested for the Coronavirus (COVID-2019).”

It is these policies, precautions, and fears that have kept travelers from booking flights. This has continued a chain reaction, with airlines seeing decreased demand and empty flights. Many airlines have suspended services to certain areas around the world.

coronavirus, IATA, aviation impact
The outbreak is having an impact on carriers globally. Photo: Getty Images

Calling for a relaxation of the rules

On Thursday, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps wrote to Airport Coordination Limited asking for the rules to be suspended:

In the letter, seen above, Shapps writes:

“I am particularly concerned that, in order to satisfy the 80/20 rule, airlines may be forced to fly aircraft at very low load factors, or even empty, in order to retain their slots…Such a scenario is not acceptable. It is not in the industry’s, the passengers’ or the environment’s interest and must be avoided.”

Airport Coordination Limited (ACL), a company that is solely involved in airport slot coordination, was the recipient of Shapps open letter. The UK company has significant influence in aviation, managing the slots of 46 airports across the world. Business Insider reports that ACL has already suspended the rules for flights to and from Hong Kong and mainland China. However, they remain in-place for all other flights.

International Air Transport Association (IATA) is contacting aviation regulators worldwide, requesting that the rules governing airport slot usage be suspended immediately. The request would extend through to the remainder of the 2020 season.

Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport
Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport is Europe’s second busiest airport. Photo: Dmitry Avdeev via Wikimedia.


It’s actually quite surprising that ACL is continuing to enforce this rule. The environmental and economic impact of running ‘ghost flights’ is absolutely absurd and needs to stop immediately during this period of decreased air travel. It benefits no one – except perhaps fuel providers.

Do you think ACL will go through with the request of Rt Hon Shapps? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Simple Flying has contacted ACL with a request for comment. At this time we have not received a response but will update this article if we do.


Leave a Reply

newest oldest most voted

Exceptions to the 80/20 rule should be made in extraordinary circumstances like this with demand cratering, but regulators should levy a modest daily fine to airlines to discourage them from claiming “extraordinary circumstance” frivolously in the future.

Barend de Klerk

Airlines should play this one smartly. Lease a C172 and fly these slots into all major airports with these aircraft. It will be hated on by the airports as it will disrupt normal traffic but no rules say it cant be done


The reported “softening” in demand by passengers is not being reflected in the rates being charged by airlines in the U.S. Still astronomical…


EU hypocrisy. All talk about environmental issues and this happens. A disgusting waste.

David G

A no-brainer! Surely common sense should win out here. Airlines are suffering financially due to reduced demand. Why make them suffer more? That’s before we even look at the environmental aspect. A typical case of red tape bureaucrats doing their job.


Probably not, because how will they keep their employees occupied for the rest of the year?


Wrong they never fly empty


Every airline in Europe is being affected by low passenger counts. Forcing airlines to give up slots to other airlines that are probably also losing slots doesn’t make any sense.

farique tareen

This is totally absurd and non-productive in all respects.


A letter to Greta Thunberg may have more immediate effect …

Dave the pubsinger

I have been looking for cheap flights, but as you observe, none exist. However, there is always the possibility that I may be forced into quaranteen for a period of time and that the places I want to visit may be closed. So why take the risk?