Why Planes Fly With Only One Passenger on Board

Dec 2, 2018

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We’re all used to a crowded boarding area before catching a flight. But how would you feel if you showed up to your gate and didn’t find a single other passenger waiting to board? Most of us might think we were late, the plane had already left, or our flight had been cancelled.

From time to time, airlines operate commercial flights with as few as one single passenger. For most of us — used to oversold flights, the hunt for volunteers and masses of people in the boarding area — this seems impossible.

For these lucky travelers, however, this experience turns into something truly unexpected. The latest passenger to have a similar experience was scheduled to fly from Bangkok to the island of Koh Samui. The crew on board made this rare experience one to remember, allowing the woman to sit anywhere she wanted, making sure she had plenty to eat and drink while on board, and providing personal safety and flight announcements.

Most of us might assume that flights with so few passengers would simply be cancelled by the airlines. But in the end, it all comes down to logistics. Airline timetables rely on planes being in specific locations at specified times. Most planes don’t do out-and-back runs from hubs, instead flying to a number of destinations along a scheduled route.

Airline crews also rely on planes to be in the right place at the right time, as some of them “commute” to work. This practice — known in aviation as “deadheading” — allows crew members to catch flights from where they live to where the airline has them based for work. These types of journeys also allow the airline to reposition crew during a given workday to meet needs elsewhere.

Remember too that most airlines move cargo in their holds. Canceling flights could lead to lost cargo revenue, even if the seats aren’t full of paying passengers. In either case, an airline being able to function properly relies on the aircraft getting to where it’s supposed to be — with or without a full load of passengers on board.

We’ve all seen the system fall apart due to weather or mechanical issues with aircraft. So it makes sense that the airlines would still fly and reposition hardware even if that means a given flight only carries a single passenger. Any airline executive would tell you that planes don’t make money on the ground. Even though it’s possible that a given flight might lose money, having that plane at its next destination means it’s hopefully making money on the next leg.

So next time you show up to your boarding area and don’t see any other passengers you might just get an upgrade few of us could only dream of.

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