Wednesday, June 18, 2008

AVIATIONHYPE: Heathrow's Ghost Flights

In these days of rising airfares, reduced airline capacity, and near-daily introductions of new fees for what used to be included in your ticket price, you'll be glad to hear that airlines still have a few more dirty tricks up their sleeves.

At London's Heathrow Airport (one of the world's busiest), not just anybody can turn up in their airplane and expect to be able to land. That rule goes for private planes as well as the biggest of the big airlines. There's a concept at work called slot allocation - basically, a limited number of takeoff and landing slots each day/week/month/etc. Airlines pay a lot of money for these slots, naturally, and are then forced to use them or lose them. If they don't maintain a certain level of service, the slots are taken away and sold to someone else.

For the purposes of this article, the term "ghost flights" does not include any of the following:
  • Planes flown empty due to lack of crew or other operational reasons like repositioning;
  • Canceled flights due to weather or equipment malfunction;
  • Mysterious aircraft owned by CIA front companies (allegedly) used to transport disappeared terrorism suspects around the world.
Except for the last point, those are a normal part of the airline business.

The following, however, is not. A couple of different news outlets have reported on how airlines will go to any length to maintain their slot rights at places like Heathrow. For example, here's a story about British Meditteranean Airways as seen in The Australian's business section in March 2007:
An airline is flying an empty passenger jet between Heathrow and Cardiff on a daily basis - just so that it can hold on to its lucrative slots at the London airport. The flights, which have pumped hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the past five months, threaten to undermine the aviation industry's public stance of trying to reduce emissions.
Wait, so the airlines are doing something different than what they're preaching to the public? No - it can't be!
The flights are being run by British Mediterranean Airways (BMed) - until recently part-owned by the family of Wafic Said, the Syrian-born financier - which flies the Airbus passenger plane from Heathrow to Cardiff and back six times a week. No tickets are sold and all 124 passenger seats are empty. Because there are no passengers, the "ghost" flights, which have run since October, do not appear on departure or arrival boards.
Could it be that the owner of this airline is rolling in piles of petrodollars? It seems a reasonable assumption to make, but then again, BMed no longer exists as a separate entity.
The sole purpose is to keep hold of landing slots on runways at Heathrow, the world's busiest airport for international flights. The slots can be reallocated if an airline does not use them regularly. They are so valuable that they can change hands among airlines for up to £10 million each.

By the end of this month, the flights will also have cost BMed at least £2 million. There is a £2,500 fuel bill for each flight, plus £300,000 a month for the lease, insurance, crew and maintenance charges.

The flights reveal the lengths to which airlines will go to hang on to runway slots. A slot is the right to use a runway for a take-off or a landing at a given time of the day. The practice is known in the airline industry as "keeping slots warm".
Interesting, isn't it? A business is doing something that otherwise may appear illogical just so they can hold on to something of value. And let's not consider the reduction in taxes created by these artificially- and purposefully-generated losses... what about the environmental angle? Surely flying an empty airliner back and forth between London and Cardiff (~125 miles/200 kilometers, or about the same as the trip from Philadelphia to Washington DC) can't be good for the environment, can it? Here's some more analysis from the article:
Over the five months, the 12 flights a week will have sent as much CO2 into the atmosphere as 36,000 cars streaming along a motorway. It is equivalent to the annual CO2 output of a town of 2,000 people.

Graham Thompson, of Plane Stupid, a campaign group, said: "It's quite shocking. These ghost flights very much undermine the greenwash we get from the airlines on how they are going to protect the environment. This shows that they are willing to sacrifice the climate for a profit."
Companies would rather make money than take care of the environment? Really? It can't be!

Here's the original story, along with another report with a slightly different angle from the BBC.

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