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Are Empty Leg Charters Good or Bad?

If you’re new to private jet travel then you may not have heard about empty leg flights before, or you may have seen them advertised in the daily newspapers with companies marketing them as cheap flights comparable to budget airlines.

The truth is that yes there are lots of empty leg flights available, however they aren’t as cheap as they are made out to be. Yes they are cheaper than the normal price but be prepared to pay in general the cost of a business class flight.

An empty leg charter flight is the chance for a discounted flight, around 40% of aircraft fly empty. Flying back to base or to pick someone up means that you have the chance to land a flight on a private jet. Too good to be true? In our experience a flight is hard to come by as there are many variables to the flight, basically you have to be in the right place at the right time. The reality is that the chances are slim so how is the best way to sell these flights to the masses?

What is an Empty Leg Flight?

Empty legs are unoccupied flights either returning to base after completing a one way charter flight. Or it’s repositioning to another airport for a flight. They are unscheduled and can be a viable option, since both the time and destination are flexible. Many private jet companies are now marketing empty legs including ourselves, but in reality it doesn’t really work, why?

It works for both the consumer and the operator of the aircraft, as discussed previously around 40% of jets fly empty. From a consumer point view this is the ideal opportunity to take a trip on a private jet, which normally wouldn’t be a possibility.

Say for instance you and friends have planned to fly from Manchester to London for a day out then a flight there or back could be an option if it fits your schedule and you’re flexible. We have plenty of aircraft that fly down to London, that you can hop on instead of taking the train or driving.

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Passenger welcome on private jet flight.

Cost wise something like this would be, around £1,800 for a six seater aircraft. Remember the flight only takes 45 minutes and you don’t have to be at the airport until 20 minutes before your flight. Quicker than your journey by train.

If you’re an operator then selling these legs can off set the costs of fuel as otherwise it wouldn’t make any money. Some is better than none. Many operators are flexible on their routes as long as it’s financially viable, so if a flight is going from Edinburgh to London then it would be possible to be picked up in Manchester or Liverpool.

The main problem is finding a flight that fits your schedule, and more importantly the primary charter of the aircraft could change the time of the flight at any time, which will have a knock on effect for your charter flight. If your flight is changed for any reason then we will notify you, if it has to be cancelled then you will get a full refund on your charter costs. The majority of empty leg flights are not cancelled by the primary charter.

Example 1 ; 

  • Falcona received an email via the website, for a flight from Manchester – Ibiza.
  • We searched the market place and found an suitable aircraft in Dublin that was flying to France on the day of the requested flight.
  • The client was notified that a flight was possible and a price was sent to them, along with our terms and conditions regarding empty leg flights. If you’re new to private jet charter, you may not be aware that the flight could be cancelled or moved at the last minute.
  • The aircraft flew from Dublin to Manchester the day before the flight, staying overnight at Manchester Airport.
  • Client arrived at Manchester Airport and flew to Ibiza, with friends.

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Example 2 ;

  • Falcona received a text message from a client, who had a friend that missed their flight from Ibiza to Manchester ( we don’t know why they missed it, but you can guess!) They were after a small aircraft for three passengers.
  • We searched for any aircraft that were positioned in or around Ibiza to minimise the cost. Again we located an aircraft, sat in Mallorca that was coming back to the UK, that would get them back to Manchester at a reasonable price.
  • After lots of debate and delay, they decided not to charter the aircraft, although it was approximately 30% off a normal one way flight.

The fact that we were able to locate empty leg flights for these two enquiries suggests that it, is relatively easy to charter them. Not the case, during the summer season, there are lots of aircraft available due to private jets heading to the popular holiday resorts around Europe. This made the chance of finding one slightly easier. However when the summer season slides off, aircraft are difficult to locate and match.

If you do however find an empty leg flight then it’s a great opportunity to experience private jet travel, keep an eye out for empty leg flights on our page. Remember you will need to be flexible, find a way home and sometimes creative in order to book an empty leg charter.

WINGX Advance estimates that 36% of European business aviation flights are Empty Legs, that is, aircraft departures with no passengers on board. The estimation is based on substantial sample data provided by operators and brokers as well as assumption-based analysis of Air Traffic Control (ATC) data showing the sector lengths operated by all types of business aircraft in the region. The analysis, as illustrated in Chart 1, suggests there were some 26,000 commercial empty legs flown in Q2-2016, most in the lighter aircraft segments, and trending up slightly year-on-year.

Chart 1: Estimated size and distribution of commercial empty legs in Europe, Q2-2016

The overall ratio is very much in line with estimates made by other parties at any point over the last decade. Many believe it’s a statistic that marks our industry out as grossly inefficient, and represents an untapped gold-mine for the right innovator, whilst others reckon Empty Legs are simply an inevitable feature of the idiosyncratic nature of the private jet market. It may be an old-school debate but the increasing traction of online charter intermediaries in the last few years, several claiming to have ‘solved’ the conundrum, make it as contentious as ever, with the topic headlining this week’s Air Charter Expo at Biggin Hill.

If the estimates are roughly correct, the unutilized inventory represented by Empty Legs is equivalent to some 100,000 commercial sectors on an annual basis. Not all of these are addressable opportunities. Many are very short ferry legs (for example, 10% of London’s busiest city pairs are intra-London airports).

Some aircraft owners prefer to fly under AOC (Air Operators Certificate) flight plans but never charter. Others have stringent or cumbersome owner-release processes, making any last minute sale problematic. And a large number of one-way flights are already priced to cover returns, which should mean any further occupancy is due to the charterer, reducing the incentive for broker and operator to find a buyer.

So whilst website marketing and the occasional newspaper article suggests there are thousands of bargains to be snapped up, the reality is that very few Empty Legs get sold as advertised. The low hanging fruit are the classic ‘return to base’ flights following an owner or charter customer drop-off at the most popular seasonal destinations.

These might perhaps help 5% of the addressable market. For the rest, brokers are honest enough to admit that their splashy promotions of Empty Leg lists are essentially a marketing ploy. Indeed, by the time an interested customer calls, the sector is likely no longer available. The important thing is to snare the customer. The impression is that it’s a fine balance for most operators and brokers; Empty Leg marketing gets some attention and provides the odd ‘bubble’, but too much interest clogs up the inbox with enquiries from unqualified parties, whilst the discount pricing tends to dilute the private jet brand and drags down ‘real charter’ pricing.


Passengers being escorted to their private jet.

Change is on the way, and it’s likely even the naysayers know they’re playing for time. After all, the market’s opacity has always been the main justification for pricing in their expertise.

Experience has shown that even the newer-generation of charter customers will continue to require a personalized service. As in other luxury industries, we will see a hybrid of high-touch and digital automation.

The disruption to the legacy distributors will come from customer-facing platforms which also have the back-office integration, not just to operators’ scheduling but also their pricing. That would put an end to the Empty Leg syndrome, even if remarkably few in our industry have interest in that level of transparency.

For more information or to enquire about a empty leg charter flight please email or call +44 (0)161 436 0124






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