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A teen's solo transatlantic flight calls attention to wasteful 'ghost flights'

European carriers are urging the European Union to alter so-called "use it or lose it" regulations forcing airlines to continue flying empty or near-empty flights.
European carriers are urging the European Union to alter so-called "use it or lose it" regulations forcing airlines to continue flying empty or near-empty flights.

Kai Forsyth lived it up on a recent British Airways flight from London to Florida. The 19-year-old college freshman had the entire airplane to himself, with only the pilots and flight crew onboard keeping him company on the nearly 9-hour flight.

"The cabin crew said I was the only person on board the flight," Forsyth wrote in a TikTok video about his trip on Jan. 9. Indeed, as the phone pans from left to right, a sea of empty seats fills the frame.

Meanwhile, the crew appeared to dote on the solo traveler, treating him to an "unlimited" supply of airplane snacks and at least one flight attendant binged on popcorn and movies with Forsyth, he said.

"It was eight hours so I set up a bed. Literally the comfiest I've ever been on a plane," he added.

While the experience might have been a delight for Forsyth, so-called "ghost flights" — flights that carriers have to make if they want to hold on to their allocated routes and airport gates — have become a flashpoint for environmentalists across Europe. They're calling for regulatory changes to keep polluting planes from making flights that would normally be canceled while omicron has sent demand plummeting. Airline companies are also putting pressure on the European Union to adjust the rules until at least the autumn.

According to European Commission guidelines, under the "80/20 rule," carriers must operate 80% of their allocated slot for at least 80% of the time. That was tweaked at the outset of the pandemic and more recently adjusted to 50%, but those figures still exceed the number of flights needed to meet current passenger demand. Additionally, the pre-pandemic rate is set to be reinstated by March 2022.

Conservationists are trying to keep that from happening and have launched an online petition, saying, "'Ghost' flights are of no benefit to anyone. This is a needless, wasteful practice, and reforming historic rights to landing slots will bring it to an end."

It continues: "At a time of climate emergency we need to drastically reduce our fossil fuel use, and in the context of our steadily dwindling carbon budget, it beggars belief that planes fly empty."

Earlier this month, Lufthansa revealed it had operated 18,000 flights this winter that would otherwise have been cancelled due to lack of passengers, including 3,000 on Brussels Airlines, which it owns.

That prompted Belgium's federal mobility minister to raise the issue with the European commissioner for transport. In a letter, the Belgian official described the current rules as "economic, ecologic and socially nonsense."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.