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For flights within Europe, are there times of day for which the airplane is emptiest compared to other hours? I was thinking, for example, a flight at 5 in the morning probably is the least popular and so the plane most likely is not filled the same way a can of sardines is!

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    Quite the contrary... Early and late flights are highly sought by people travelling for business who want or need to have a full day at their destination. Honestly, since deregulation, flights with lots of empty seats are quite the rare beast, airlines just can't afford to fly them.
    – jcaron
    Oct 12 at 22:25
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    @jcaron The only exception is when the flight has to be made as a part of repositioning the aircraft. Which brings about the stories of flights with a single passenger on them
    – Peter M
    Oct 13 at 0:39
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    Except for skydiving flights and for the exceedingly rare birth or death on board, no, there is no time of day at which a given flight is emptier. Every flight within Europe starts and ends with the same number of passengers. ;)
    – Psychonaut
    Oct 13 at 8:43
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    Flights in the early morning are quite popular by people taking a short vacation (like a city trip). Arriving mid morning instead of late afternoon or evening gives you relatively much more vacation time for a two or three day trip.
    – Abigail
    Oct 13 at 15:47
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    @QuoraFeans: Indeed. No-frill airlines simply cannot afford to fly anything other than close to full capacity. Their entire model is built around having as many passengers in the air as possible. They'd rather cancel a 70% full flight and pay out the penalties. Oct 13 at 23:40
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A crude and inexact, but quick and easy, heuristic is to look at flight prices. All things being equal, for direct flights between A and B, the emptier (less popular) ones will be cheaper and the more popular ones will be more expensive. This is because airfare pricing works on price "buckets" (fare classes) that fill up as the airplane fills up.

Note that it's important to limit your search to nonstop flights only, because otherwise you'll get connecting flights in the mix that cannot easily be compared.

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    Although cheaper flights are cheaper exactly so more people will book it and it will (ideally, for the airline) end up full. Plenty of people would be more than happy to pay a significant premium to fly when they want, but plenty of others would be more than willing to significantly shift their flight dates and times in order to fly for cheaper.
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 13 at 13:56
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    @NotThatGuy You're missing the point: airlines increase prices as the plane fills up. If it's a few days before the flight and they're still selling cut-rate tickets, odds are the flight has plenty of empty seats and they're not all going to sell out. Oct 13 at 14:21
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    Sure, but I'm just saying you should take differences in flight prices with a rather substantial pinch of salt. Those prices are based on decades of research and are set with the goal of making as much profit as possible, which usually involves not flying with a half-empty plane (although there may be other competing factors, like how the price of one flight would affect another flight, and they may not always succeed in this goal).
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 13 at 14:33
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    This isn't totally useful, unfortunately. Prices are based in part on how elastic demand is relative to price, rather than just demand. Flights on weekdays are often, all things equal, more expensive than other times because business travelers are much less price-sensitive than leisure travelers.
    – Joe
    Oct 13 at 18:13
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https://www.rd.com/article/secrets-to-avoid-flying-on-a-crowded-plane/ claims that flights in the middle of the day and on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday tend to be less crowded.

Travel midweek

If you can be flexible on what day you fly, you’ll have a better chance of finding less crowded flights. Flights on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday tend to be less crowded (and cheaper!) than flights on Mondays and Fridays, says Scott Keyes, the founder and chief flight expert of Scott’s Cheap Flights. If you want to avoid delays, this is the best time to fly.

Fly off-peak

The most popular time of day to fly is early morning and early evening; this is also when flights can be expected to be most crowded, says Keyes. When you’re choosing flights, pick a nonpeak time (these usually correspond to when flights are cheapest as well); flights in the middle of the day tend to be less crowded than morning or evening flights. Or try middle of the night flights; not only are these often less crowded, but passengers will often be sleeping, which means fewer people walking in the aisles or conversing with each other.

Note that this is just a very vague approximation. The actual airport and route are likely to matter to some extent.

To estimate the occupancy of a given flight: https://thepointsguy.com/guide/how-full-is-my-flight/

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    This advice has often worked for me within Europe: flying on a Tuesday or a Wednesday at around 1500h, and reserving a seat in the last row has frequently given me three seats to myself (or "Easyjet first class" as I liked to call it: put up the armrests and you have a makeshift bed for the flight)
    – Aaron F
    Oct 13 at 8:54
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    I also second the correlation to cheaper flights, which is pretty easy to filter for with tools like Kayak's flexible flight (where it shows you the price by day/hour)
    – Hobbamok
    Oct 13 at 9:56
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    @AaronF I use a slightly different strategy. Rather than reserving a seat in the last row (which on budget airlines typically costs extra money), just let the airline allocate the seat. Board the plane last (bonus: less time spent on the plane!) and at the rear, then sit in the (often empty) back row. Most airlines don't mind you sitting in an empty seat which wasn't yours. I've done this countless times on Wizzair and other budget airlines in the EU. The only time I was ever asked to move was because the plane was so empty they needed to re-balance the weight.
    – JBentley
    Oct 14 at 12:25
  • @JBentley nice trick! I'll remember that one :-) It's true that it normally costs extra to reserve a seat, so I've only been able to do it with Easyjet (and Vueling, I think? I can't remember...it feels like it's been ages since I last flew anywhere!)
    – Aaron F
    Oct 14 at 16:01
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Early and late flights are full of business travellers, especially on Tuesdays and Thursdays as people often work Tue-Thu on remote projects (why is another topic, but I've done that schedule myself and the flights at 6 am and 9 pm were quite crowded).

The most empty plane I have ever seen had me and two other people on it, plus the crew. That was an early Sunday morning flight. Sunday morning cuts out the two largest crowds - business people and tourists. Business people will travel during the week, and tourists would start their holiday on a Fri, Sat or Mon more likely than a Sunday, and are more likely to end their holiday with a late-in-the-day flight than an early morning one (even the red-eye flights don't come in a 6 am).

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There are times when there are fewer people flying ... but that just means there are less flights, not emptier planes. Airlines need flights to be mostly full just to turn a profit, and make more money the more full the flight is. They've gotten pretty good at scheduling / pricing flights to ensure the flights are almost entirely full. If there were a time when flights are emptier, airlines would drop the prices for those flights to try to get more people to fill them, and in the future reduce capacity then by having less flights or smaller planes.

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