How to snag a cheap 'empty leg' flight to the Mediterranean

Plane Talk: here’s what happens when an ‘empty leg’ goes on sale

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 02 November 2018 15:59
Simon Calder flies on an almost empty plane from London Gatwick to Palma de Malloca

“Empty legs” or “ferry flights” are the bane of a holiday company’s life. Over the past week, thousands of vacant aircraft seats have flown from airports across Britain to alluring Mediterranean destinations.

Tour operators organise flights to provide lift for their holidays through the summer. But at the start of the season, there is no one to bring home; and at the end, no one to take out. Consequently, in a season of 25 weeks, the cost of providing the two empty sectors must be spread across the 48 revenue-earning departures, making them 4 per cent more expensive.

How much better it would be if those planes could be packed with passengers in search of a one-way flight to somewhere lovely. Surely there is some pent-up demand to unlock, to allow travellers to go south as the nights close in on the north: taking the last nonstop from, say, Manchester to Santorini, then stringing together a ferry to Athens and a flight home from the capital a week or two later.

The travel industry is keenly aware of the issue. And some firms try to tap into this market. Tour operators which also run airlines (such as Thomas Cook), and airlines which also run tour operators (like Jet2), sell one-way tickets on flights to the Mediterranean. And here’s what can happen when they flog off seats on empty legs.

At the end of the summer of 2017, the journey of a Scottish woman, Karon Grieve, made headlines. She was the only customer on a 189-seat Jet2 plane from Glasgow to Crete; two other passengers were booked, but they failed to turn up.

Ms Grieve’s private jet experience was an extreme case. But to find onboard space and calm, is just a matter of timing. You can easily arrange something similar, as I did this week.

The last call for Thomas Cook Airlines’ summer flights from Gatwick to Palma was last Tuesday. After 30 October 2018, the carrier has no more flights to the Mallorcan capital until April 2019.

I reached the Thomas Cook desk in Gatwick’s south terminal 65 minutes before the final departure of flight 1216 to Palma.

As well as your destination and seat assignment, the boarding pass also usually carries a sequence number. Mine read eight, which meant only seven other people had checked in ahead of me.

Empty promise: the boarding pass for a flight with plenty of space 

Thomas Cook Airlines had deployed the incredible Boeing 757-300 for the operation. This venerable twin-jet is a narrow-bodied plane with wide-bodied capacity, thanks to a fuselage that seems to stretch for miles, and holds 280 passengers. I had been allocated seat 35C, towards the back of the long, thin plane. But that wasn’t where I ended up sitting.

Boarding took a matter of seconds, during which we were asked: “Can you all gather in the middle for the safety demonstration?”

We may not have had the undivided attention that Karon Grieve enjoyed on her trip to Greece last year, but there was still one member of cabin crew (and a choice of 35 seats) for each passenger.

Time to find out how much we all paid. The answer: a flat £28, even for Prashant, a high-flying London businessman who had booked only the day before for a short-notice presentation in Palma.

The plane got away early, and on arrival in Mallorca the queue for passport control was as short as the line to leave the plane. At about the time the aircraft was scheduled to touch down I was already on the road to Magaluf. But that’s a different story.

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On the homeward journey, every seat was booked at premium fares. One of the many oddities of 21st-century travel is that the less you pay, the more likely you are to have a spare seat next to you – or in the case of Thomas Cook flight 1216, dozens of empty spaces.

Eight people each paying £28 might sound a better deal for an airline than no people paying anything. But the trouble with these bin-end flights is that dispatching a plane with real passengers is more expensive for the airline than dispatching a “ferry flight” with only crew on board. Almost half of our fares (£13 a head) was extracted by the chancellor in Air Passenger Duty.

From check-in and gate staff to baggage handlers, resources have to be deployed. So there is an element of “use it or lose it” to these operations. For your sake and mine, I urge you to try out the concept – perhaps for the first flight of the 2019 season (Brexit willing). From Palma to Gatwick on 2 April, Thomas Cook is asking just £26 one way.

But no need to pay an extra £7 to reserve a seat or £12 for priority boarding: you’ll miss the crowds.

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