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Why Not Cancel an Empty Flight?

Q: My flight the other morning was nearly empty. The airlines complain that they only make money when flights are full, so why, when a plane is carrying hardly any people, don’t they cancel the flight?

This gets back to the fact, lost on many people it seems, that airplanes don’t simply fly back and forth between the same two cities. If a flight from San Diego to Dallas is empty, it can’t be canceled without affecting the whole system. That plane may be destined, later in the day, for Philadelphia or Newark or Miami, or might be needed at a station for maintenance procedures. Every flight is part of a vast puzzle. Hundreds of airplanes are at work simultaneously, and the airlines use complicated algorithms to coordinate their schedules.

Meanwhile, occupancy is not necessarily a good gauge of revenue. In recent months, lower fares have required very high loads (or, to use industry parlance, “load factor”) just to break even, but on certain routes even an underbooked flight can still be a profitable one. On international flights, premium fares in first and business class are the money-makers, while those in coach represent little more than filler. And down below, there are often many thousands of pounds of valuable mail and freight.

This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston