Travel The problem with ‘ghost flights’ and why they will...

The problem with ‘ghost flights’ and why they will soon disappear

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Slots are among the most valuable assets in aviation, particularly in Britain where our major airports are so congested. Heathrow runs at near 100 per cent capacity. Airlines will do almost anything to hold on to them. To keep their slots, carriers must use them a minimum of 80 per cent of the time, which is where the ghost flights come in.

Sometimes demand slumps but airlines want to retain a slot, so they fly empty or near empty planes – although carriers argue this is rare. Sometimes they can’t use their slots, for instance due to war. Neither British Airways nor Virgin Atlantic is flying to Tel Aviv these days. But it is not always immediately obvious whether an airline needs to continue to use the slot on, say, another route, in order to satisfy the “use it or lose it” rules. Slots are “route neutral”.

It was conflict that sparked the notorious BA Heathrow to Cardiff ghost flights, for which no tickets were sold, all 124 seats on the Airbus jet were empty, and the flights did not appear on arrival or departure boards. The airline came up with the plan after it was forced to scrap flights to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, following civil unrest there but wanted to retain the slot.

Could the slot system work better for airlines, passengers and the environment? The government thinks so. Last week it announced plans to reform the regime. Aviation minister Anthony Browne wants to “curb major airlines” monopolies at certain airports, boost competition and lower fares”.

Clamping down on slot leasing will prevent larger airlines “monopolising slots at certain airports and ensure they can be allocated to competitors if they’re not being used frequently enough”. This, he says, “will help newer or smaller carriers offering cheaper fares to receive more favourable slots”. He argues: “Increasing opportunities for new airlines will encourage greater competition and drive productivity between airlines.”

He also wants to ensure regulators and airlines act faster in response to crises, such as war, to make it clear that airlines can keep their slots without using them, “making the industry more resilient and efficient in times of uncertainty”.

Will Browne’s reforms work? One man who knows is the International Air Transport Association’s, John Middleton, a man nicknamed “the slots guy” by his colleagues in the organisation’s Geneva headquarters. He points out that the congested nature of Britain’s airports means that competition among airlines for slots is fierce which promotes their efficient use. But a review could improve services for passengers in areas he calls “the three Cs” – certainty, connectivity and competition.

On certainty, regulators could be quicker to tell airlines that they can let slots lapse because of war or disruption. “Passengers need, and deserve, to know what flights will operate and when as far in advance as possible,” says Middleton. 

On connectivity, regulators should better monitor how airlines use slots to make sure they are not cheating the system or operating ghost flights. “We don’t think airlines are monkeying around with slots, flying empty planes, or whatever the allegation is,” he says. “But proper monitoring would quickly reveal the truth”.

On competition, airlines that already operate from an airport have first dibs on a new timing for a flight if one becomes available. So if, say, an 11am slot from Heathrow to New York JFK comes available, BA or Virgin Atlantic are likely to secure it. Only once incumbents have had their chance to grab the new time, can newcomers have a go. This should change. “Competition is strong in the UK. Look at how EasyJet has become dominant at Gatwick. But a tweak on the margins could help new entrants get in and compete a little bit faster than they already do,” says Middleton.

If the review works as Browne intends, passengers could see greater reliability of service, new entrants and lower fares but there are limits, Middleton points out. The biggest problem UK airports face is not the way slots are organised but the number of slots. “There is not enough capacity at airports in the UK to satisfy the massive need for consumer choice. Slot reform means we can get better at dividing up the pie. But at the end of the day, the question is: is there enough pie?”

The biggest improvement in air travel would come from a third runway at Heathrow, which would, for instance, enable EasyJet to operate from the UK’s hub and Virgin to, perhaps, resume short-haul services. A second runway at Gatwick would also be a boon; Gatwick is applying to use an existing emergency airstrip as a second runway. The chances of Heathrow gaining a third runway, however, remain as distant as ever.

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