Virus Forces Virgin Atlantic To Fly Nearly Empty Planes

British airline Virgin Atlantic has been seen to be undertaking some ‘ghost’ flights, operating services with very few passengers on board. This is being done in order to protect its valuable airport slots. CEO Shai Weiss has joined other airlines and industry bodies in calling for a relaxation on the slot rules so that these sorts of flights don’t continue to take place.

Virgin Atlantic
Virgin has been forced to operate almost empty flights. Photo: Getty

The impact on aviation

The effects of the coronavirus on aviation are wide-reaching, and not just for those airlines that usually fly to or from the worst affected areas. Globally, people are less willing to travel, and that’s being reflected in a notable slump in ticket bookings.

For most airlines, this slump can be somewhat compensated for by either reducing the frequency of servies on low demand routes, or by reducing the size of the aircraft. Just this week, we’ve seen a number of carriers grounding their largest aircraft in favor of smaller ones, just to try and keep flights full during these uncertain times.

However, not all airlines have that option available to them. Those with smaller fleets may not have ‘spare’ aircraft to simply swap in, and if they’re operating out of slot restricted airports, reducing service frequencies is also not an option. So what do they do?

The short answer is they operate ghost flights; empty aircraft taking off for no other reason than to protect precious airport slots. While a few airlines have been called out over this practice in the last couple of weeks, today it’s the turn of long haul specialist Virgin Atlantic.

Virgin Atlantic admits ghost flights

The BBC is today reporting that Virgin Atlantic has admitted to running a number of ghost flights in order to protect its valuable slots at London airports. All the London airports are slot controlled, along with Manchester and Birmingham. As such, airlines must operate their allocated slots at least 80% of the time, otherwise they risk losing the slot next season.

Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, told the BBC today,

“Passenger demand for air travel has dramatically fallen due to Covid-19 and in some instances we are being forced to fly almost empty planes or lose our valuable slots.”

While there’s no specific information on which routes or aircraft are being flown almost empty, the fat that they are only ‘almost’ empty suggests they are not ‘ghost flights’ in the absolute sense of the phrase. Tickets are still being sold, there may even be some passengers on board, but they’re selling way less than the usual threshold to make the flight worth operating.

Under normal circumstances, Virgin would cancel flights with such low demand. However, due to the slot rules, it is choosing to operate the flights, even though they won’t be making the airline any money. It’s a sorry state of affairs, and something that is no good for the airline, the environment or the reputation of the aviation industry.

Relaxation of rules is needed

Over the past week, we’ve seen multiple industry bodies, airlines and even the UK government calling for a relaxation on slot rules. Airlines are fearful that, as we transition into the IATA summer season, the pressure to operate near-empty flights will only increase. Mr. Weiss joined the calls for a change to the rules, telling Sky News,

“Given the almost unprecedented impact on global passenger demand, the UK slot coordinator and the European Commission need to now urgently relax the rules for the whole summer. Common sense must prevail.”

On Monday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps sent an open letter to the slot coordinator asking for more flexibility to be applied to the rules. However, if any change to the rules is to be implemented, the decision will be made at the European Commission.

Airlines UK have also called for a change, with Tim Alderslade, the chief executive, telling Sky News,

“Carriers are being forced to fly half-empty planes or risk losing that take-off slot in future, seriously affecting their ability to plan ahead. It makes no sense whatsoever under these unique and challenging circumstances to force airlines to fly empty aircraft, wasting money and fuel and creating carbon emissions.

“We urgently need a temporary suspension of the rule – as happened during the financial crisis – to allow airlines to respond to demand and use their aircraft efficiently.”

What do you make of Virgin’s ghost flights? Let us know in the comments.