Ghost Flights – Why Operate Empty Aircraft?

A spooky topic for this Halloween as we discuss why there are mysterious empty aircraft crossing our skies, with a full crew but no passengers. Despite sounding like the worst possible business move, these empty flights serve a very important role in an airline’s route plan; filling slots, moving planes and padding wallets.

Ghost flights
Ghost flights are very real but not what you think. Photo: Eric Kilby via Flickr

What are ghost flights?

What do we mean by a ghost flight? Is it a specter of a forgotten BOAC Comet that never made it? Not exactly.

Specifically, we mean aircraft that are flying empty on a regular schedule, with either little or no opportunity for the regular public to buy tickets. But why would this exist?

It’s all about keeping slots. If an airline has the right to fly into a popular airport, such as Heathrow, a pause to that service of more than a week would give the airport the right to allocate the slot to someone else for free. And these slots are expensive, running up to $100 million for a single pair of arrival and departure slots.

The best way to keep these slots? Run an empty aircraft until you are ready for a normal service.

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Some planes flying in the sky today are empty. Source: Pexels.com

For example, as we reported on this topic previously, one such route is the London Heathrow to Cardiff, Wales flight, which leaves six days a week with a crew but with no passengers on board. This flight was originally a British Mediterranean flight that ran to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, but was canceled due to unrest in the country many years ago. So instead of giving up the incredibly valuable slot pair, they elected to run a service to Cardiff until the situation resolved itself.

But, hold on, we hear you ask yourselves, why no passengers? Surely it would make sense to pay for the route by adding people? Well, it would have cost far more to set up agents, baggage services, and other elements required for a passenger craft for essentially a route that was not designed to make money. Why spend more than necessary?

What about routes that don’t exist yet?

In 2004, Qantas wanted to open a new service to London Heathrow and purchased a slot pair from Flybe for $25 million. As it would take some time to actually set up the service (and they didn’t want to lose the new slot pair by not running anything) Qantas hired another airline to run a trip from London to Manchester, twice a day, for that period. As they already had a codeshare agreement with British Airways, this ‘extra’ flight generally only ever had two or three passengers on board.

qantas-project-sunrise-2023.
Qantas has been accused of running ghost flights to London. Photo: Qantas.

A more common example of ghost flights is when the slot pairs are no longer needed for the season. This would be, for example, after the summer season has ended in North America, the need to ferry as many people across the Atlantic isn’t as popular. Hence they would simply run or boost existing routes for the winter.

What about repositioning flights?

An alternative reason for ghost flights is when an airline needs to reposition a plane or pick up passengers that have been left behind due to an aircraft failure. Typically this involves sending out a completely empty flight as soon as possible with no time to put tickets on sale.

The aircraft might be being flown for maintained and thus flying to a destination that is not really a passenger route.

Flight Radar
The flight schedule of the replacement A319. Empty flights to move between boarding destinations not included. Photo: Flight Radar 24

What about a real mysterious reason?

However, there is one example of a ghost flight that is beyond our logic.

PIA Has Operated 80+ Flights With No Passengers – But Why?

These flights ran completely empty, with no passengers, multiple times. Executives were asked why and didn’t respond to media enquires.

The real reason? We will leave it up to you! Happy Halloween.

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David C

A good friend of mine is an A330 pilot. He worked on a Wet Lease agreement from North America to Indonesia. He would fly a full load of pilgrims for “The Hajj” to Jeddah. For the first part of the contract, he flew full from Indonesia and empty back for three weeks. He then had a two week break (met his wife and went to Java) then the second half of the contract he flew full back from Jeddah to Indonesia. All the cabin crew were Indonesian and he rarely came out of the cabin. He always remarked that when… Read more »

abdullah khawaja

hey im from Pakistan and the reason why pia had 80 plus flights was
1 : either the corrupt politician Nawaz sharif or druglord rana sanga smuggled drugs
or
2 : pia was in a difficult time maybe repositioning or just no one bought the tickets

Asger H

Flying empty, polluting the environment and wasting resources, for retaining slots, should be illegal!
There surely must be other ways to keep slots.
Why not just pay a “sleeping’ fee to the airport, when everybody knows, that this flight is only done for keeping the slot?