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Airline Defends Flying Empty Planes

British Airways could advertise lots of extra legroom on some of its transatlantic flights, by virtue of the fact that there are no passengers.

The U.K. airline has been flying some planes from Britain to North America this month without a single passenger aboard because of a cabin crew shortage, the airline said Wednesday.

Since Nov. 1, about one BA flight a day from Britain to the U.S. or Canada has left Heathrow or Gatwick airport carrying only pilots and cargo.

"We have been flying empty planes between London and various cities in the United States," British Airways spokesman John Lampl confirmed to CBS News, though he said the number was few.

He insisted the planes are not flying simply to hold onto BA's valuable landing slots at London's airports or in the United States.

British Airways PLC controls 41 percent of the sought-after slots at Heathrow airport - more than any other airline - and like other flyers it must use them 80 percent of each year to retain them.

BA said it is working hard to resolve its staffing problem, caused by the difficulty it sometimes has coordinating the separate schedules of its 15,000 full- and part-time cabin crew members, 3,000 pilots and 240 planes operating around the world. This sometimes leads to a lack of cabin crew for a specific flight.

One environmental group sharply criticized the "phantom" BA flights, saying they indicate once again how indifferent the aviation sector can be to the world's battle against global warming.

A 747 flying from London to New York will burn almost 100,000 gallons of fuel, which produces a considerable amount of pollution and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The practice of expending that much fuel for empty flights also comes at a time when BA has raised fuel surcharges to its customers, applying almost $200 to each long haul, round-trip ticket.

"At a time of climate crisis it's absolutely scandalous that BA should be flying empty planes across the Atlantic," said Ben Stewart, a spokesman for Greenpeace's London office.

"Global warming is the greatest threat we face, but by doing this, British Airways is flying in the face of the science and public opinion. The public wants companies to act responsibly these days."

BA's Web site heralds the airline's commitment to reducing its carbon footprint, indicating that the carrier has improved its fuel efficiency by 28 percent since 1990.

Earlier this year, British Mediterranean Airways, or BMed, a struggling carrier then operated as a BA franchise, was accused of using "ghost" flights between Heathrow and Cardiff to retain its slots at the London airport. In October, the airline stopped operating as a BA franchise, and it is now owned by BMI.