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  • Writer's pictureAir Travel Andrew

Airlines Fly Empty Planes Around. This is Why.

An empty aircraft cabin with a single aisle and three seats on either side

The airline business has notoriously slim profit margins. It’s therefore no secret that empty planes generally aren’t good for an airline’s bottom line. However, airlines sometimes fly their planes around with very few or no passenger on board at all. Let’s take a look at why this happens.

Why a Flight May Still Operate With Only a Few Passengers on Board

The first type of scenario is something you might have witnessed or heard of before: a large airliner takes off nearly empty with only two or three passengers who get the entire plane to themselves. That’s bound to be a cool experience. The question is why an airline would bother flying a flight if it has only filled a few seats. It definitely isn’t profitable and it makes even less sense if the passengers can easily be rebooked on a different flight.

The answer is that airlines don’t just consider that one single flight in isolation. Let’s say that the nearly empty flight is going from New York to Atlanta. The plane might be scheduled to fly back to New York from Atlanta afterwards, and that flight might be completely full. If the airline cancels the first flight because it’s empty, it would also have to cancel the next flight. The plane wouldn’t have made it to Atlanta to operate it and that would have been a sold-out flight that they cancelled. If the plane was continuing onto a different destination, it would cause further scheduling problems for the airline if they didn’t operate the flight.

The same thing goes for the crew. If the crew are scheduled for a flight and they don’t end up going, the airline will have to find a new crew for next flight they are scheduled to operate – or find some other way for the crew to get to where they need to be.

View forward from the back of an empty widebody economy class cabin

Repositioning, Maintenance and More

Some flights operated by airlines are not scheduled passenger flights. There are many operational reasons why an airline might fly around an empty plane. Airlines might fly a plane around for pilot training purposes, for example. These types of flights were common during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when global air travel came to a standstill. There are requirements on how often pilots need to fly to keep their certifications current, and so airlines were flying empty planes to keep the pilots current.

Airlines might also fly empty planes around for maintenance tests or to reposition planes between airports, either for operational reasons or for maintenance. If an airline has a plane break down at an outstation – which means that the airport isn’t one of its bases – it might choose to send an empty plane to go pick up all the passengers. There are lots of operational reasons why airlines might fly empty planes around. And of course, airlines pick up planes and fly them to their bases when they first get them, and then fly them away empty when aircraft get retired.

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