There are two holy grails in aviation, moments of such unexpected serendipity that they will be retold to friends and family for years to come. The first is the free upgrade, where you are told, usually at the check-in desk, that because of your frequent flyer status (or just your dashing looks and Savile Row suit), you don’t have to spend any money for the next nine days spend hours with your kneecaps in your face, just like the rest of the plebs.
The second is rarer and no less sweet. You might get an idea while you wait to board. “Am I at the wrong gate?” you wonder, as other passengers stay away. Then you get on the plane and discover that you have it mostly – or even completely – to yourself. A private jet experience at a fraction of the price.
Such a scenario was seen last Christmas on an Emirates flight from the Seychelles to Switzerland, when a mother and her daughter (Kimmy Chedel and Zoe Doyle) were the only passengers in the economy class cabin. Similar cases were reported last year on flights from Faro to Belfast (on Jet2), from Ibiza to Jersey (on Blue Islands), from Oklahoma City to Charlotte (on American Airlines) and from Fiji to Sydney (on Virgin Australia).
So how common are these ‘ghost flights’? And can you increase your chances of experiencing one?
One thing is certain: airlines are increasingly abandoning unprofitable routes, are often able to switch to smaller planes when sales fall, and are becoming increasingly adept at filling their cabins – with flexible algorithms and AI determining ticket prices to ensure that every seat is sold – they are becoming rarer.
Before 2000, a passenger load factor (PLF) of about 70 percent was the norm. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global average in 2005 was 75.1 percent; in 2011 this was 78.1 percent; in 2019 it reached a record high of 82.6 percent. This means that on a typical flight with room for 200 passengers, approximately 35 seats will be empty.
The Covid pandemic briefly halted the rise of the aviation collective PLF. It was indeed a great time for ‘socially distanced’ travel. “I had the entire premium economy section of an Emirates A380 – 56 seats and three bathrooms – to myself on a flight from Heathrow to Dubai in January 2020,” says John Arlidge, an aviation expert and frequent flyer. “Three months later I was one of only five passengers in Club World on a BA service from Mexico City to Gatwick.”
Travel has returned to normal – and PLFs are back to pre-pandemic levels, but even with the high-tech tactics now being used to fill every plane, and the importance of profit over prestige, there are still virtually empty flights.
Why? John Strickland, an aviation consultant, explained: “If a plane is flying almost empty on one flight, it is likely that it will be quite full in the other direction and therefore cannot be cancelled. Another factor could be that cargo is being transported, which could mean the flight is still profitable.” Furthermore, airlines lose their valuable airport slots if they are not used enough – at least 80 percent of the time, under current rules (although there are proposals to revise these) – giving airlines an incentive to plow on even if a flight sold poorly.
So what are the best tactics if you want to be surrounded by empty seats?
The late show
Choosing an unattractive departure time is an obvious move.
“There’s no way to ‘guarantee’ you’ll end up on an empty flight, but you can certainly make good bets,” says Gilbert Ott, creator of the travel blog godsavethepoints.com. “For example, between New York and London, the last flight of the day (in either direction) will usually be the quietest, as business travelers prefer earlier flights. There is often plenty of room in all cabins on VS25 (Virgin departure at 8.25pm) and BA183 (BA departure at 7pm) to New York.”
In general, planes are most likely to be full in the summer and in the winter when the number of empty seats is highest. According to the IATA, the average PLF in Europe is 87 percent in July, and only 73 percent in February.
Flying during public holidays can also increase your chances. In the above example, Kimmy Chedel and Zoe Doyle won gold with Emirates on a Christmas Day departure, and Henry Harteveldt, a leading US aviation analyst, added: “I’ve seen a number of people post that they are the only passenger, or one of the few, on flights on major holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving in the US and New Year’s morning.”
Conversely, flying with a budget airline will likely reduce your chances. Ryanair is the undisputed master when it comes to putting bums on seats, with a PLF ranging from 92 percent in low season to 96 percent in summer. EasyJet’s was 89.2 percent in 2023, Jet2’s was 90.7 percent. Conversely, companies like British Airways, Emirates and Lufthansa normally fill around 80 percent of their seats, while Etihad’s PLF rarely exceeds 75 percent.
The stranger the better
Harteveldt also recommended flying to or from smaller cities in hopes of some breathing room, as well as flying with airlines on a route they are not as known for offering. Therefore, opting for a recently launched (but in an ideal world not much publicized) service could pay off. Additionally, if you hear that an airline has just discontinued a route (probably in response to low demand), boarding one of the last services to offer the private jet experience may result.
Data from the Civil Aviation Authority confirms that choosing an unusual route can pay off. For example, in the first quarter of 2023, every flight from Gatwick to Mauritius had at least 50 passengers on board, as did 99 percent of flights from Heathrow to Barbados. Surprise, surprise: flights to tropical idylls during the winter high season are usually full. But in the same period, 24 percent of flights from Heathrow to Bulgaria, 39 percent of flights from Britain to Azerbaijan and 83 percent of flights from Britain to Kazakhstan carried fewer than 50 passengers. Does an empty cabin make swapping the Caribbean for Kazakhstan worth it? That’s up to you to decide.
A game of tag
Then there is the existence of what Harteveldt called “tag” routes. “These are the continuations of a route from an airline’s home base or hub, where they are less known and where their load factors may be lower,” he explains. “There aren’t that many anymore, because planes now have a longer range and it’s expensive to operate these flights (if it’s a long-haul route, a crew change is likely to be needed, and the different crews will of course have to take a flight between their flights have sufficient rest period). Sydney-Christchurch, offered by Emirates, is an example, probably a tag on Dubai-Sydney. A friend of mine just flew this service and was the only passenger in the premium cabin.
“I also believe that KLM flies between Buenos Aires and Santiago, a continuation of the airline’s Amsterdam-Buenos Aires route. Likewise, it operates an Amsterdam-Singapore flight that continues to Bali. And Air France operates Los Angeles-Tahiti as part of one of its Paris-Los Angeles flights.”
Once upon a time, airlines operated certain routes purely for their prestige. If your arch-rival London flies to JFK, so should you – never mind the empty seats and financial losses. Politics can also play a role. In 2015, it was even alleged that United launched flights from Newark to Columbia, South Carolina, as a favor to the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Then there are unprofitable routes that are kept open thanks to government subsidies (in Britain these are called public service obligation routes, which also include the routes used to connect the airports of the Scottish Isles and Glasgow).
These are now few and far between. “However, airlines will operate additional flights between key hubs as a defensive tactic,” Ott said. “There are many times a year when airlines operate multiple daily flights to Santorini, for example, just to offer more choice, even if they can’t actually sell all the available seats. Being able to offer that choice is intended to bring in more bookings and win all day long. This is common on routes such as London-Dubai, where frequency is important.”
Ott added that disruption often leads to empty-flight scenarios that make headlines: “I’ve experienced them myself during irregular operations where a flight was canceled or severely delayed and only a few stragglers remained and ended up on the plane.” Every cloud has a silver lining.
Will my flight be empty?
So you’ve booked your flight to Kazakhstan, flying on Christmas Day, with the most uninviting departure time available. Can you know in advance how busy the cabin will be?
“It’s difficult to know how full or empty your flight is,” says Harteveldt. “You can’t really rely on the seat map for your flight because seat maps don’t reflect the number of reservations, just the number of people who currently have a seat selected. Please note that airlines may charge a fee for reserving a seat before flight check-in opens. As a result, passengers can wait to select their seat when check-in opens and can choose their seat for free.”
Ott added: “I used to use a tool called ExpertFlyer to look up live seat maps and outsmart people to get the right economy seats to get a whole row. The better hack now is to be one of the last to board and ask the gate agent if there are any gaps in the seats that you can take advantage of.
What happens on an empty flight
So you’ve won the ghost flight jackpot – what now? You have plenty of room for your bag in the overhead bin, a more attentive cabin crew (on the aforementioned Jet2 flight, the cabin crew kept calling their only passenger “King Paul” while giving the American Airlines flyer “all the food and drinks I wild”), and fewer people coughing, snoring, and hanging out in the aisle with their backsides in your face.
And surely an upgrade to business class? Think again. Just because the front seats are empty, don’t assume the cabin crew will offer you one. That was the case with Kimmy Chedel and Zoe Doyle last Christmas, when the premium seats on their Emirates flight remained off-limits. And when Kai Forsyth from Derbyshire was the only passenger on board a BA flight from Heathrow to Orlando in January 2022, he too was denied the pleasure of a premium seat and had to make do with converting his economy class row into a makeshift bed. Not quite the private jet experience, but an improvement nonetheless…