If you wanted to travel from London, England to Cardiff, Wales, your best bet is probably to drive — at about 225 km (140 miles), you’re only looking at about a three-hour drive. If you want to take a train, that’s an option — it’s about a two-hour trip from London’s Paddington Station to Cardiff Central. You could also fly from London’s Heathrow Airport to Cardiff’s airport, but it won’t get you there any faster, there aren’t a lot of flights, and if you can find one it’s going to be expensive, so that’s generally a bad idea.
But there are worse ideas. For example, you could be an airline that operated a daily flight between the two cities — and decided to not sell tickets to passengers.
And from a business perspective, it probably made sense.
Heathrow Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world, having served more than 20 million passengers in 2020 — which was, of course, a down year for air travel; Heathrow’s traffic fell more than 70% that year from the year prior. In a more normal year, around 90 million passengers go through this European hub. That means a lot of flights have to come through the airport, and as you can imagine, there’s a lot of demand for takeoff and landing slots in the Heathrow schedule. Airlines regularly spend millions of dollars (if not tens of millions) to acquire these slots, you’re an airline fortunate enough to have access to one, you’ll do whatever you can to keep it. And in most cases, that’s pretty easy to do: all you have to do is use it. Before the pandemic, the rule was simple, as the BBC explained: “an airline needs to make at least 80% use of its allocation over a six-month session to preserve the entitlement or it risks seeing rivals take over the slot.” And let’s face it, if you’re in the business of flying people to and from London, you probably want to use 80% of your flight spots every six months anyway.
Unfortunately, sometimes things go wrong, particularly if you’re a smaller airline that services niche marketers. That’s the situation that British Mediterranean Airways (“BMed”) found itself in, at least. At its peak, BMed had eight planes serving 17 different destinations, such as Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Syria, and importantly for our purposes, the Uzbekistan capital of Tashkent. In 2007, citing civil unrest in the Tashkent region, BMed decided to temporarily stop flying that route. Not having anywhere else to take their passengers, BMed came up with a solution. As My London relays, “six times each week British Mediterranean Airways [ . . . ] sent planes into the air without any passengers from London to Wales,” departing from Heathrow during the slot originally intended for that trip to Uzbekistan. The return flight from Tashkent was the next day, so BMed had the planes go to Cardiff one day and return the next. From the perspective of Heathrow’s slot system, BMed was using 85% of its allocation — and therefore, didn’t have to surrender it back to the airport.
But, as noted at the top, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for a consumer to book a flight from London to Cardiff or vice versa. So BMed didn’t even bother selling tickets. Per the above-linked BBC report, the flights “[did] not appear on departure or arrival boards, none of the 124 tickets were sold and all passenger seats remained empty.” This saved BMed money — they didn’t have to spend money on a full flight crew, luggage handlers, or those complimentary peanuts. But the move proved unpopular for environmental reasons; the flights burn a lot of carbon, after all.
These flights came to an end before 2007 closed; BMed was purchased by British Midland International airlines and that October, rebranded and folded into the British Midland brand. But the “ghost flight” problem, as it became known, still exists. Due to the pandemic, Heathrow waived the use-it-or-lose-it threshold in the spring of 2020 and, in late 2021, reinstated the rule at a 50% level. In recent weeks, the government announced that the number will be bumped to 70% starting in March, (And this isn’t unique to the UK. Across the European Union, similar rules have caused an avalanche of empty planes; per The National News, “German airline Lufthansa said it would have to run 18,000 empty flights during the winter to keep its airport slots” to account for the EU’s 50% usage thresholds.) Given the still-slow demand for air travel, many in the UK have petitioned their government to reconsider the slot usage requirements.
From the Archives: Why It Takes So Long to Board an Airplane (And How to Fix It): The solution is not “fly it empty.”