Revealed: 5,000 empty ‘ghost flights’ in UK since 2019, data shows

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More than 5,000 wholly bare rider flights person flown to oregon from UK airports since 2019, the Guardian tin reveal.

A further 35,000 commercialized flights person operated astir bare since 2019, with less than 10% of seats filled, according to investigation of information from the Civil Aviation Authority. This makes a full of astir 40,000 “ghost flights”.

In 1 quarter, for example, 62 bare planes near Luton airdrome for Poland, portion successful another, Heathrow saw 663 astir bare flights going to and from the US. Both quarters were during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Air question results successful much c emissions per hr than immoderate different user enactment and is dominated by a number of predominant fliers, making it a absorption of clime campaigners. They called the shade formation revelations “shocking” and said a pitchy substance taxation was needed and airdrome enlargement plans should beryllium questioned. The UK authorities describes shade flights arsenic “environmentally damaging”.


Why shade flights run remains unclear. Only airlines cognize the reasons but they bash not people information that explains the practice. Ghost flights whitethorn tally to fulfil “use-it-or-lose-it” airdrome slot rules, though these were suspended during the tallness of the pandemic. Other reasons cited by airlines see Covid repatriation flights oregon the repositioning of aircraft. But these cannot beryllium verified and campaigners said much transparency is needed.

The caller information gives the fullest representation to day of the fig of UK shade flights, arsenic previous data lone counted planetary departures. It present includes planetary arrivals and flights wrong the UK. The CAA volition present people this information quarterly, arsenic a effect of a bid of FOI requests by The Guardian.

“Publication of this information is simply a measurement successful the close direction, but we request much transparency to recognize wherefore these inefficient, polluting practices continue, and to clasp the main hose culprits to account,” said Tim Johnson astatine the Aviation Environment Federation. “Given the clime emergency, the revelation that truthful galore adjacent bare planes person been burning fossil fuels and adding to the CO2 gathering up successful the ambiance is beauteous shocking.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said it volition enactment with the CAA to show craft occupancy to question greater transparency connected the contented of shade flights.


The information shows an mean of 130 wholly bare flights per period since 2019. The fig of bare flights remained astatine a akin level before, during and aft pandemic question restrictions, with the 2nd highest level successful the 2nd 4th of 2022. This suggests the crushed the airlines chose to alert bare planes was not related to the interaction of Covid connected aviation.

Half of the bare flights were wrong the UK and the apical 7 airports accounted for two-thirds of the total, led by Birmingham with 1,455, Luton (1,307), and Bristol (758). The fig of bare flights did not correlate with the full fig of flights astatine each airport, suggesting they whitethorn bespeak issues connected circumstantial routes.

There person been an mean of 1,200 astir bare shade flights per period since the commencement of 2020, erstwhile numbers jumped astatine the commencement of the Covid pandemic. Most of these – astir 80% – were to oregon from overseas destinations.

Eight airports, among the busiest successful the UK, accounted for astir two-thirds of the astir bare flights since 2019, led by Heathrow (10,467), Manchester (3309), Gatwick (2,766) and Stansted (2,197). Edinburgh and Glasgow some had much than 1500 astir bare flights.

Alethea Warrington, astatine clime foundation Possible, said: “This shocking caller information connected shade flights is yet different illustration of however the aviation manufacture cannot beryllium trusted to get its emissions connected way to tackle the clime crisis.”

“Following a summertime of record-breaking, runway-melting heat, this wanton discarded of c by airlines flies successful the look of those feeling the afloat brunt of our warming world,” she said. “To extremity this for good, it’s clip to commencement taxing kerosene to discourage unnecessary emissions.”

A spokesperson for Airlines UK said: “Millions of flights arrived and departed the UK betwixt 2019 and 2022, with lone a tiny fraction operating without oregon with fewer passengers and for a assortment of operational reasons driven by the pandemic.”


Airlines person denied operating shade flights to clasp slots. The mean 80:20 rule, meaning 80% of flights connected a way indispensable run to clasp the invaluable slots, lone applies to the busiest airports and was suspended from the extremity of March 2020 due to the fact that of the pandemic. It was reintroduced arsenic a 50:50 regularisation successful October 2021 and rose to 70:30 from extremity of March 2022.

Some airlines person said that immoderate shade flights took spot during the pandemic to alert successful Covid-related supplies connected rider planes. However, the CAA information records less than 300 flights since the commencement of 2020 carrying cargo but nary passengers.

A spokesperson for Birmingham airdrome said: “Flight occupancy fell during the pandemic owed to question restrictions. During this clip flights into Birmingham included British nationals returning from ‘red list’ countries, PPE and Afghan refugees.”

A Luton airdrome spokesperson said the reasons for the precocious fig of shade flights included Covid question restrictions and regulatory requirements regarding craft airworthiness and aviator licensing. “Following the removal of each question restrictions, mean rider loads per formation person returned to 88% this summer,” helium said. Repositioning of craft and attraction was among the reasons fixed by Bristol Airport for its shade flights.

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Heathrow is the UK’s busiest airdrome and had the highest fig of astir bare flights. A Heathrow spokesperson said: “At a clip [during the pandemic] erstwhile the manufacture was losing billions, nary relation would person been flying a level without it being commercially viable oregon without an operational need. As borders closed to passengers, airlines switched to cargo operations, delivering captious aesculapian supplies for the country.”

Anna Hughes, astatine the Flight Free UK run group, said: “Putting tens of thousands of bare oregon near-empty planes successful the aerial during a clime situation is simply a immense discarded of wealth and a needless root of emissions. It makes a mockery of people’s efforts to trim their ain emissions. If it makes concern consciousness for the airlines to bash this, there’s thing severely incorrect with the concern model.”

The spokesperson for Airlines UK said: “UK airlines are afloat committed to achieving nett zero emissions by 2050. Alongside filling our flights arsenic overmuch arsenic possible, we are making ‘jet zero’ a world by modernising our airspace to further trim inefficiencies, utilizing astatine slightest 10% sustainable aviation substance by 2030 and driving the improvement of zero emanation commercialized aircraft.”

Johnson said: “Several reasons person been enactment guardant for adjacent bare flights during the pandemic, but the proviso of 2019 information – a grounds twelvemonth for airdrome passengers successful the UK – highlights a wider problem. The information besides shows that 50,000 craft arrived oregon departed from Heathrow and Gatwick unsocial successful 2019 little than fractional full. This indispensable formed uncertainty some connected these airports’ claims that they are efficaciously afloat and request to grow and connected their claims to beryllium responding to the urgency of the clime challenge.”

All the flights successful the CAA information are commercialized rider flights and aerial unit grooming flights are not included. There were thousands of shade flights to lipid rigs but these were not included successful the Guardian analysis. The CAA information besides lists Bournemouth Airport arsenic having 933 bare flights, but the airdrome said the immense bulk of these were non-commercial flights tally by a institution that is simply a tenant astatine the airport.