Exclusive:Flights Scotland: Over 1,000 polluting ghost flights at Scottish airports as SNP under fire for ditching emissions targets

Scourge of empty flights intensifies pressure on Scottish Government to tackle emissions

More than 1,000 so-called ghost flights passed through Scottish airports last year, with scores taking to the skies without any passengers or cargo on board in figures that have reignited criticism of the practice.

Critics pointed towards the impact on the environment at a time when the SNP Government is in turmoil after its widely-condemned decision to scrap key climate targets.

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An analysis by The Scotsman of official data shows that throughout 2023, a total of 1,058 ghost flights either departed or landed at the nation’s airports. They included hundreds of international departures or arrivals, including multiple transatlantic flights to and from the US, and flights between Scotland and Canada, Egypt and Qatar.

Those international flights that were completely empty, save for the crew on board, included multiple departures and arrivals via the state-owned Glasgow Prestwick Airport – including a flight from the Canary Islands, a journey of around 2,000 miles – and flights between Edinburgh and Germany, Poland and Slovakia.

The extent of the empty or nearly empty flights passing through Scottish airports will intensify pressure on First Minister Humza Yousaf’s minority administration to take action at a time when it has been roundly condemned for ditching emissions targets, a move that sparked the collapse of the power-sharing deal between the SNP and the Scottish Greens.

Last year, The Scotsman revealed 1,489 completely empty passenger flights flew to or from Scottish airports between 2019 and 2022. The latest airport load factor data, compiled by the Civil Aviation Authority, shows the trend is continuing.

The spate of ghost flights, defined as services with fewer than 10 per cent of their seats filled, as well as those with no passengers at all, spanned 15 Scottish airports, with the data showing pronounced spikes in the frequency of nearly empty flights. In the final three months of last year, there were 16 ghost flight departures from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Turkey, 17 from both airports to Spain, and a further 17 to Greece.

The scourge of ghost flights has been condemned by environmental campaigners. Picture: Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesThe scourge of ghost flights has been condemned by environmental campaigners. Picture: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
The scourge of ghost flights has been condemned by environmental campaigners. Picture: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Aberdeen Airport saw the highest number of ghost flights of any airport with 347. Although oil rig journeys accounted for many of those (112) with a further 176 domestic flights, a sizeable minority – 59 – were international flights. A total of 137 flights passed through Glasgow Airport, 56 of of which were international, including departures to the US, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Croatia.

Across the 11 airports owned and operated by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL), an executive non-departmental public body wholly owned by Scottish ministers, there were 448 ghost flights, with 68 completely empty.

Mark Ruskell, the Greens spokesman on climate and the environment, said: “The number of ghost flights running in and out of Scottish airports is completely jaw-dropping. As the planet is burning, it’s totally unacceptable for airlines to charter thousands of planes flying without passengers.

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“Transport remains Scotland’s most polluting and highest-emitting sector, and there’s simply no credible route to net zero without cutting air miles. The Scottish Government has to take this seriously and take urgent action to reduce aviation emissions. That means rapidly rolling out an air departure tax (ADT), introducing a super tax on private jets, and halting the expansion of airports. Anything less than that would be climate betrayal.”

Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation non-profit, said: “There is simply no defence for ghost flights. Previously, airlines have claimed that some of these flights are necessary for maintenance, but the CAA's data excludes any non-commercial flights.

“We need to get tougher on these inefficient practices and that requires strong policies and incentives. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has already called on the Scottish Government to do more to tackle emissions from aviation, including the ADT. But ghost flights suggest that, in addition to charging passengers, we should also be taxing empty seats to discourage this practice.”

Although it is airlines who decide whether to operate such flights, the Scottish Government has been repeatedly criticised for not doing enough to tackle aviation emissions. In its most recent assessment, the CCC pointed out there was no strategy for decarbonising aviation in Scotland, and no progress in addressing aviation demand growth. It has urged the Government to publish a detailed decarbonisation strategy “as soon as possible in 2024” and to implement ADT.

Holyrood legislated for ADT back in 2018, but the plans floundered over a disagreement with Westminster surrounding an exemption sought for flights from the Highlands and Islands. In the wake of the latest CCC assessment, net zero secretary Mairi McAllan said the Government would “set out the high-level principles of ADT” and proceed with more detailed policy development “as soon as possible”. However, it is unclear how those plans will be impacted by the demise of the Bute House Agreement.

Aviation sources said there were several factors underpinning the prevalence of ghost flights over Scottish airspace, such as training, repositioning and maintenance flights, and the impact of routes between Scotland and those airports with 'use-it-or-lose-it' slot restrictions like Heathrow.

While the national 2023 total is down on the previous 12-month period, when there were 1,568 ghost flights, 286 of which were completely empty, the timeframes cannot be directly compared. That is because Covid-19 related international travel restrictions were still in place for part of 2022, a year in which Scottish air travel only reached around 74 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “The Scottish Government’s unwavering commitment to reach net zero by 2045 remains. With emissions already nearly cut in half, Scotland is well positioned to continue leading on climate action that is fair and ambitious.

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“While the regulation of air services is reserved to the UK Government, the Scottish Government is exploring how it can encourage airlines to use Sustainable Aviation Fuels produced from feedstocks to reduce emissions.

“Air Departure Tax would be charged based on the number of passengers on each flight and would not affect ‘ghost flights’. The Scottish Government is exploring how this can support its net zero objectives in a way that protects highlands and islands connectivity.

“Many flights in Scotland serve remote and island destinations where air transport is essential in keeping communities connected. By their nature, some services can operate with very low passenger numbers. Provision of these services can be vital for people - especially those travelling for medical purposes.”



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