When was the last time you flew on a half-empty aircraft, with maybe three seats all to yourself in an economy cabin? Or perhaps the travel gods smiled and you’d several rows to choose from – or even an entire aircraft all to yourself?
It happens. UK couple Carrie Fisher and Kyle McNicol were the only passengers on an ATR 72 Firefly flight from Krabi in Thailand to Penang on September 2.
In 2015 New Yorker Chris O’Leary was one of only two passengers on a Delta Airlines flight from Cleveland to his home town. The flight had been delayed by bad weather, most of the passengers were rebooked on other flights except for O’Leary, who inexplicably missed out.
Flights with just one or two passengers on board are rare enough to make the news, and to light up social media sites, but flights with just 20 or 30 per cent of seats occupied are not so uncommon.
One possible cause is a flight delay, and especially one due to technical problems that ground an aircraft. If the delay extends to several hours, passengers on that flight will often be re-seated on other flights. When the delayed aircraft finally takes off it might only have a few remaining passengers on board.
The aftermath of a disaster, either an airline event or one that causes a crisis in confidence among travellers, can be another reason for aircraft with empty seats.
In the immediate period following 9/11, passengers reported near-empty flights departing from US airports. After Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370 disappeared in March 2014, seat bookings fell and the airline’s share price tanked. In the first full quarter following the disappearance Malaysia Airlines reported a loss of US$97.6 million, 75 per cent more than the loss for the same period in the preceding year.
Yet another reason for empty seats is pure happenstance.
During blizzards in China in February this year there was just one passenger aboard a flight from Guangzhou to Wuhan. Service was well above par. “I felt like a rockstar,” wrote Ms Zhang on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo. This was in the lead-up to Chinese New Year, a time when most of China is on the move. Railway stations were packed, including the station at Guangzhou, yet it seems most were looking to travel by train rather than by air, possibly believing flights would be fully booked and not bothering to check.
Except for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Swiss International Air Lines operates two daily non-stop flights from Zurich to Chicago. One departs at 09:45, the other at 12:45, but the earlier flight will often depart with just a handful of passengers. “Swiss people don’t like to wake up for the early flight,” according to one of the cabin crew.
Despite what some fliers believe, airlines don’t and won’t cancel a flight at the very last minute if too few passengers show up. Flight schedules are a complex web and delayed aircraft punch a hole in that web. If an aircraft is delayed on one sector it has a cascade effect on subsequent flights aboard that same aircraft. An aircraft doing short-haul flights, for example between cities on Australia’s east coast, one of the world’s busiest air corridors, will make several flights during a day. A delay at any stage in that day will push back every other flight scheduled aboard that aircraft for that day.
Airlines do not typically have spare aircraft sitting around waiting to be deployed to fill in for one that is late. Nor do airlines have idle flight crew in case they’re needed, and an extended delay might also push the designated flight crew beyond their regulated flying hours. If it is bound for a busy airport the aircraft might arrive at a time the aviation industry describes as capacity constrained, when the aircraft might be required to fly in a holding pattern until a landing slot becomes available. At such times all the airbridges to the terminal might be in use, requiring the aircraft to park at a remote location and passengers to deplane onto buses, with the potential for further delays.
It might seem intuitively obvious for airlines to have a fire sale of any seats that are empty close to flight time but that’s not the way airlines think. Airlines will typically offer their cheapest seats for a flight many months in advance. As those cheaper earlybird seats are sold, flyers are left with more expensive options, and passengers desperate to fly at short notice are likely to get slugged. Airlines earn a disproportionate amount of their revenue from the small number of late-booking passengers who need to fly at any cost.
If an airline was to discount seats at the last minute simply in order to fill them it would compromise that lucrative revenue stream. Better to fly with a few empty seats, the reasoning goes, rather than jeopardise the proven pricing model with a few quick bucks. If it should happen from time to time that a passenger hits the jackpot and scores an almost empty aircraft, according to the airline business model that’s a price worth paying.