The Hustle

The skies are filled with ‘ghost planes’ thanks to the strange market for flight slots

Thanks to a bizarre secondary economy for flight slots, airlines are sending empty “ghost flights” through European skies.


March 8, 2020

Across Europe, empty planes are flying back and forth from airport to airport thanks to a bizarre rule that requires airlines to use at least 80% of their scheduled “flight slots” or risk losing them.

There’s a huge secondary economy for flight slots

Since airports can only support so many flights in a given day, they issue a finite number of the slots. Some airports even employ 3rd-party coordinators to manage their slots because competition is so fierce.

To keep the market competitive, a “use it or lose it” policy requires airlines to use 80% of their slots.

The slot system sounds good in theory…

But it has caused airlines to adopt some problematic practices. Some examples:

But now coronavirus has exposed a problem

Drastically decreased demand caused by coronavirus concerns has forced several airlines to fly ghost flights to avoid losing slots. 

In some cases, the ghost flights weren’t enough: UK airline Flybe declared bankruptcy last week due to the strain. The airline industry as a whole could lose as much as $113B due to decreased demand.

Critics say that UK authorities and slot coordinators should relax rules to prevent airlines from losing money — and wasting jet fuel that damages the environment. 

It wouldn’t be the first time: The industry suspended the “use it or lose it” rule after both 9/11 and the financial crisis. 

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