‘Ghost’ flights are yet another example of our polluting ways

People don’t want to fly because of the coronavirus. In some countries, people have been quarantined and cannot fly. Being able to climb into a metal tube and end up in another part of the world is a defining element of the modern world.

But there are aeroplanes jetting about with few, if no passengers in them. This costs airlines money — jet engines burn through tonnes of aviation fuel — and means those planes are releasing unnecessary greenhouse gases that will trap heat and warm this planet for decades to come. Air travel accounts for 2.5% of all global emissions, which doesn’t seem like a lot when compared with emissions from industry.

But the emissions footprint of the few who travel by air is huge. A single flight from Johannesburg to London and back emits nearly 2000kg of carbon. That’s more than the average person in 85 countries emits in an entire year. The average footprint of a South African is four times this, mainly because Eskom burns coal to produce electricity and because industry uses electricity with a profligacy that would make you think it’s infinite.

These ghost planes are flying empty because of the way landing slots are allocated at big airports. Airlines have to use a slot for 80% of the time or it is given to another airline. These slots are costly to acquire. With the International Air Transport Association saying last week that the industry could lose $113-billion if Covid-19 continues to spread, airlines cannot afford to lose landing slots.

This is a logic of their business.

But it points to just how little our current way of running the world thinks about the pollution — of the air and rivers as well as carbon emissions — that comes with industry and our way of life. Forcing airlines to fly empty would be unthinkable if we were serious about reducing carbon emissions.

And it’s not as if there isn’t an urgency to reduce emissions. This week the United Nations launched its “assessment of the global climate 2019”. Another bleak document, it detailed how far off — “way off” in the words of secretary general António Guterres — countries are from doing what is required to keep global heating to below 2 °C.

Guterres warned: “Time is fast running out for us to avert the worst impacts of climate disruption and protect our societies.”

There are signs that incremental change is happening. Last month, a court in the United Kingdom stopped the construction of a new runway at Heathrow, the country’s major international airport, because it was inconsistent with the UK’s pledge in Paris in 2015 to do what it could to keep global warming to below 2 °C.

And this week the European Commission agreed to suspend the 80% use-it-or-lose-it rule for airlines’ slots.


Baby steps. In a time where adult steps are needed.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian
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