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Major airline faces backlash after using 'ghost flights' to exploit a legal loophole: 'They weren't even selling tickets'

Ultimately, it's incumbent on lawmakers to take steps to ensure this practice is discouraged.

Ultimately, it’s incumbent on lawmakers to take steps to ensure this practice is discouraged.

Photo Credit: iStock

In August, the Guardian reported that Qatar Airways was flying 354-seater planes between Melbourne and Adelaide in Australia despite having little to no passengers on board. 

According to the publication, the airline was exploiting a loophole in Australia's aviation laws, enabling it to make extra flights to Australia by registering its take-off and landing location in one city but flying initially to another.

What's happening?

In many cases, Qatar Airlines would use multi-leg flights to hide its low-passenger flights. 

For example, one flight from Doha, Qatar, to Melbourne had an additional stop in the Australian city of Adelaide, which was registered as the final destination. Passengers would disembark the aircraft in Melbourne, but a few would remain in the terminal to make the final leg to Adelaide. 

The Guardian said that these numbers were typically in single digits, and no ticket sales were permitted for domestic passengers to board the plane from Melbourne to Adelaide. A similar situation happened for the return leg. 

Such journeys are often described as "ghost flights," in which planes take off with a capacity of 10% or less. 

In this case, Qatar Airways was making these extra journeys to avoid caps that allow it to make only 28 weekly trips to Australia's major airports, which includes Melbourne. Landing at Adelaide Airport, which is not among that list, as the final destination enabled the airline to make additional journeys to Melbourne, as there were no limits on flights to non-major airports.

Commenting on the situation, an industry source told the Guardian, "The whole purpose is to get to Melbourne … I mean, they weren't even selling tickets [to Adelaide] for the first few weeks. They were taking the p*** out of the industry and the laws."

Why is this a problem?

Aviation is a significant contributor to global pollution. According to the International Energy Agency, the industry was responsible for 2% of the world's energy-related carbon pollution in 2022. 

When the plane carries close to zero passengers, it's a planet-harming journey that seems wholly unnecessary, not to mention exploitative of a country's aviation laws. According to Greenpeace, yearly pollution from "ghost flights" is equivalent to what would be created by 1.4 million cars. 

There have been similar cases elsewhere. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, many airlines were still running flights in Europe despite having no passengers in order to keep valuable airport slots.

According to The National, German airline Lufthansa said it ran 18,000 empty flights in the winter of 2021-2022 to ensure it didn't lose lucrative deals that gave its planes spots at major airports. 

What's being done about ghost flights?

The Australian Department of Infrastructure and Transport has since stepped in to ensure that passengers and cargo would be allowed on those previously near-empty flights between Adelaide and Melbourne, Bloomberg reported. 

Ultimately, it's incumbent on lawmakers to take steps to ensure this practice is discouraged. Most of all, it's on the aviation industry to rethink its policies on how airlines can keep their airport slots without causing further damage to the planet. 

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