Today I Learned: Why So Many Empty Planes Are Flying Around

So called “ghost flights” are filling the skies in some parts of the world. I had an assumption that empty, or near-empty flights flew just to cover imbalances when flights to one location were more popular than others. But it turns out there’s another reason and it’s being linked to coronavirus, or COVID-19.

Airline timetables aren’t just a schedule that determines what time flights take off and land at various airports. Those slots are a commodity that are purchased and traded. The reason those 3:00AM takeoffs are cheaper than the more comfortable 10:00AM or mid afternoon departures is that airlines pay airports for premium spots.

That makes sense.

But the lesson I learned today is that unless airlines use those slots, they can lose them.

There’s even a secondary market in slots in some regions. When an airline knows it’s not going to use a particular slot for a while, they can sell it to another airline – typically an affiliate partner – so the slot is used and they still make some money although it’s usually a lot less than what they would make if they ran their own flights.

This has been coming to a head as the spread of coronavirus has resulted in a massive downturn in international travel. Many conferences all over the world are being cancelled, companies are banning all non-essential business travel, and holiday makers deferring or changing their travel plans.

Many airlines are flying empty planes just to keep the slots as the costs of flying empty aircraft are lower than the projected impact of losing the slots. That is, unless you consider the environmental impact of those ghost flights.

Airlines are railing against the “use it or lose it” policy. There’s precedent for suspending the rule with the GFC of 2007 and the September 11 attacks in 2001.

There’s little doubt that the coronavirus is having a massive impact on people in all sorts of ways. But I never knew there was a “use or lose it” policy on takeoff and landing slots.


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