Why are so many planes still flying despite all the travel restrictions?

The numbers are dropping – on Tuesday, 452 flights were scheduled to leave from DXB, yet only 285 did so

An image posted on Flightradar24's Twitter page of the air traffic. Courtesy Flightradar24
Powered by automated translation

In the past few days, several airlines have closed routes or suspended operations completely as the coronavirus wreaks havoc across the global travel industry.

Yet, looking at online flight trackers, there still seem to be plenty of planes still in the skies. So, why is that?

Global flight tracking service Flightradar24 has the answer. The website follows more than 180,000 flights from 1,200 airlines in real time, and has taken to answering popular questions around Covid-19 and the aviation industry.

First up: why do flights continue to take off when so many borders are closed and travel is being restricted?

Flightradar24 says this is because many are repatriation flights shuttling people home, rather than anyone taking off on a holiday.

This graphic shows air traffic at some point on Tuesday:

As the number of scheduled flights dropped rapidly, many were replaced by rescue flights to bring citizens home, which kept tracking numbers up.

“Currently airline after airline is grounding their fleet, and we expect a big drop in number of tracked flights before the end of this week,” the service said.

Airline after airline is grounding their fleet and we expect a big drop in number of tracked flights before the end of the week

The number of flights per day

A graph comparing daily scheduled commercial flights from January 1 to March 15 over the same period last year showed wildly different scenarios.

By comparison, 2019 began with about 100,000 tracked flights per day, while 2020 began well above that and was tracking upwards.

The number hit more than 112,500 commercial flights in early January, but dropped off exponentially about two weeks later, at the end of the month, hitting a low of 100,000 flights.

After a brief upswing in February, that number plunged again, now falling well under the 100,000 flights mark (as you can see in the blue line on the graph below).

What about flights from the UAE?

As for Dubai and Abu Dhabi specifically, as expected, the statistics show a marked decrease in scheduled flights in the past month. Since late February, Dubai International operated about 30 fewer flights each day than were scheduled, before that number began dropping dramatically late last week.

Yesterday, 452 flights were scheduled to leave from DXB, and only 285 did.

Statistic of flights at Dubai airport. Courtesy Flightradar24
Statistic of flights at Dubai airport. Courtesy Flightradar24

Abu Dhabi International has operated about 15 fewer flights each day than were scheduled since mid-February, but in the past few days it reported a larger drop. Yesterday, 173 flights were scheduled to fly from Abu Dhabi, yet only 110 did.

Airports in Europe are bearing the brunt of flight cancellations

Another graph broke down scheduled departures compared with actual departures at major European airports for Tuesday, March 17.

March 17 also marked the first day since March 3, 2019 (excluding Christmas, when many airlines don’t operate flights and others have reduced schedules) that Flightradar24 tracked fewer than 150,000 flights (both commercial and private), as numbers continued to drop dramatically.

And as flight schedules around the world continue to be disrupted, it’s likely these numbers will continue to fall.


Read more:

For the first time since 1632, this annual event will not take place at the Taj Mahal

Can I cancel or change my flight due to the coronavirus crisis? The booking policies of major airlines explained

Coronavirus: Emirates airline suspends flights to 35 destinations