The Story Behind London Heathrow’s Ghost Flights

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Did you know that London Heathrow is haunted? Not by ghosts, but by empty planes running routes that you can’t buy tickets for.

One such route is the very busy London Heathrow to Cardiff, Wales flight, which leaves six days a week with a crew but with no passengers on board.

Sounds awfully mysterious, but the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

Why does this happen?

At first, that sounds incredibly wasteful, having planes flying entire routes with no passengers on board, multiple times a day, week after week. It is actually cheaper than the alternative.

This is due to the way that Heathrow airport has been constructed, with only two runways, and is called “slot pairing”. If you’re an airline and you’re looking to land a flight into Heathrow you must purchase a slot pair. This is an arrival time and departure time to the airport, one day a week.

For example, a slot pair might be, arriving at 8 AM Monday, and departing at 9:30 AM on Tuesday.

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As London Heathrow airport is one of the worlds busiest airports, slot pairs a very sought after (there are only 650 slot pairs in total per day) and is generally auctioned for a very high price between Airlines.

How high a price?

A great example of how expensive the slot can be, is the sale of a Kenya Airlines pair to Oman Air, for a time of 6.30am arrival and departure at 8.25am every day, for $75 million. This course is the most popular as it is when flights leave from America and Asia to Europe.

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So why empty “ghost” flights?

Once the airline has a slot pair, they can either use it, sell it, or if they don’t use it 8% of the time, it gets given (for free) to the next Airline in the waiting list. As such, Airlines will run empty flights to nowhere to keep the service running.

In the opening example, that ghost flight to Cardiff was originally a British Mediterranean flight that ran to Tashkent Uzbekistan but was cancelled due to unrest in the country. So instead of giving up the incredibly valuable slot pair, they elected to run a service to Cardiff until the situation resolved. But why no passengers? It would have cost far more to set up agents, baggage services, IT set up and other things required for a passenger craft.

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.

A more common example of ghost flights is when the slot pairs 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.

There are plenty more examples of these ghost flights leaving Heathrow, and until the new runways are built, will continue to run plenty more.

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