18,000 Empty Planes

18,000 Empty Planes

I woke up early this morning to turn my pre-ferment into dough so it could rise and I could bake it. I made the pre-ferment from my sourdough starter last night, which I fed yesterday morning. A pretty detailed process, all in all. Especially considering that I have Covid.

I had been putting it off – with the body aches and hacking cough, I was struggling to get out of bed, but I mustered up my energy to tick this off the list. Why, though? Why do I sacrifice my precious time handmaking bread each week instead of buying it from the store?

Because I don’t want to waste plastic. I eat gluten-free bread, which typically comes in a plastic bag, and I am trying to use as little single-use plastics as I can.

While the pre-ferment rose, I returned to bed and started scrolling Instagram. Amongst the scathing commentary of Scott Morrison as he conjures one pathetic distraction after the other, a friend had shared a story that said “Brussels airlines has flown 3000 empty flights to maintain take-off and landing slots“.

I immediately felt my stomach drop, kinda like when I’m at the supermarket and see all the vegetables wrapped in plastic – except 3000 times worse than that. No, in fact, the wasted fuel emitted into the atmosphere from flying thousands of empty planes would be about 5 trillion times worse than the use of gladwrap on veggies at the grocery story, if someone crunched the numbers.

I felt overwhelmed by the futility of my earnest efforts; I felt white-hot rage. And, I thought, before I get carried away, I better fact-check that.

A cursory Google search revealed that not only was it indeed true – but it gets worse. The headline I had seen focused only on Brussels Airline, whereas the Lufthansa Group – the airline of which Brussels Airline is one of four subsidiaries – actually flew 18,000 empty flights over the past several months. 18,000. Eighteen fucking thousand flights flew without passengers.

And here I was thinking that one of the only good things to come out of Covid was that we’d reduced emissions thanks to all the flying we weren’t able to do!

All us pesky (and selfish!) holiday-goers who apparently prop up the aviation industry, a big polluter responsible for a whopping 5% of all global warming, are encouraged to feel guilt for putting so many planes in the air – so much so that the term “flight shame” exists. The internet abounds with opinion pieces by individuals lamenting the impact they’ve had on the environment by flying, and how they’re denouncing this form of travel for less polluting options (like car or train travel).

These people are inspiring and it is true: hoards of tourists, frequent-flying business people and every other person who takes air travel for granted absolutely increases demand and thus pollution. For those of us who fly, it makes up a big chunk of our carbon footprint. But what if choosing not to fly, even if a lot of us chose not to fly, didn’t stop the planes?

Learning that Brussels airline, and Lufthansa more broadly, unnecessarily chewed up unfathomable amounts of fuel really sent me into a spiral. I can only imagine how betrayed those who have given up flying permanently would feel. So much personal sacrifice from David to be undone by Goliath.

So, why? Why did they fly so many empty goddam planes?

In learning the answer to this, my anger transferred from Lufthansa to the European Commission – the EU’s executive branch responsible for legislation, enforcing EU laws and administration. Basically, the EU Commission requires airlines to fly a certain amount of planes to keep their allocated time slots at major airports. The quotas were revised during Covid, excusing airlines for not hitting their regular targets, but clearly weren’t lowered enough. In light of all these empty flights, the Belgian Federal Government has now written to the EU asking for the targets to be lowered again.

The responsibility sits at multiple levels. The airlines should have protested and engaged other airlines, worked with climate activists, seized the opportunity to take a stand against problematic policies and consulted their own environmental policies – which surely flying empty planes would surely go against.

Then there’s the EU. The negligence in their failure to use this as an opportunity to save on emissions – to save some of the precious fossil fuels being pulled out of the ground at such great cost to all life on Earth – is a fine example of bureaucratic hypocrisy. I mean, think of the recent COP26: literally a summit at which leaders of state come together to wank over what target they’ll set (and not meet) – during which there were planes flying overhead with no one in them because the EU legislates that planes must take off and land, even during a pandemic. The irony!

And there’s Greta travelling by fucking boat when she wants to go overseas because she refuses to contribute to emissions. How horribly depressing is it that we make these sacrifices to take a stand, to “reduce our footprint”, to “do our bit” – only to have the very governing bodies who attend the COP26 allowing, nay enforcing legislation that causes the unnecessary flight of more planes than Greta could ever catch in a lifetime.

I’m sure there would be commentators who would point out that “in comparison to the amount of fuel usually used on blah blah, the fuel wasted for these flights is insignificant”. But considering the recent mayhem in countries like Kazakhstan and Lebanon that have been closely linked to fuel shortages and ensuing hikes in fuel prices, surely every little bit counts?

Individuals are constantly made to feel responsible for climate change – reduce, reuse, recycle, eliminate single-use plastics, take three for the sea, buy local, better yet – eat paddock to plate, and don’t forget your keep cup! Meanwhile, huge polluting corporations do fuck all toward halting the effects of climate change, and – as we all know – actively disregard the scientific facts and keep exploiting, ravaging, pillaging and polluting (and greasing the palms of politicians to keep them on-side). An article in the Harvard Political Review points out that a mere “100 investor and state-owned fossil fuel companies are responsible for around 70 percent of the world’s historical GHG emissions”.

I’m not saying we should stop doing all the little things we do in our own lives – they do make a difference, and any less rubbish in landfill and straws up turtles’ noses is an improvement. But, girl does it hurt when a regulatory body like the UN misses such a big opportunity to “reduce, reuse, recycle” on a scale far grander than what we as individuals will ever have the scope to achieve? It’s not that I didn’t know our individual contributions were borderline futile against the magnitude of the issue, but I suppose I naively thought that something like empty flights would be enough of a waste of money for the airline to prevent them from occurring.

I fucking hate capitalism.

Cover by Cristian Baron

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