As a passenger sitting in economy, perhaps on a flight to Los Angeles or en route to London, the chances of landing a seat that turns into a whole row sits somewhere between slim to none.

But the industry has entered an uncharted phase not seen since perhaps 9/11 when global air travel plummeted and it took years for airlines to fully recover.

An almost empty British Airways passenger plane flies from Milan to London on March 5, 2020. Photo / Getty Images
An almost empty British Airways passenger plane flies from Milan to London on March 5, 2020. Photo / Getty Images

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As the coronavirus outbreak expands across the globe, passengers continue to question whether or not to travel abroad. It's a headwind of uncertainty that is likely to cost the aviation industry tens of billions of dollars globally.

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On Friday, Qantas became the latest Australian airline to cut back on once popular routes amid the coronavirus outbreak, including flights to Japan, Hong Kong and New Zealand.

Earlier in the week, budget airline Jetstar announced it would be suspending flights to Seoul in South Korea until at least July, while Virgin Australia pulled all routes out of Hong Kong entirely.

As one of the largest industries in the world, the travel industry is more at risk of coronavirus than any other – and the grim reality of the industry has never been more apparent.

On Thursday, images of a near-empty British Airways flight from Milan to London exposed just how little the world is travelling. Industry experts say the industry could lose between US$63 billion ($99.4b)) and US$113b in worldwide airline revenues alone this year.

The flight isn't alone, with social media filling with photos of planes sitting near empty moments before takeoff.

"Don't think I've ever been in one so empty before," one person tweeted from the seat of their empty row.

"I've been on light flights before but never this empty," another added.

"There is an eye-opening number of empty seats on my flight back from Charlotte," another commented.

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Coronavirus has rattled supply chains, caused toilet paper shortages and thrown stocks into a plunge. The abrupt decline in airline passengers and growing number of flight cancellations suggest the travel industry's contribution to the global economy will be hit hard.

"There are dramatically fewer people flying this week than there were last week," Nicholas E. Calio, chief executive of Airlines for America, told the New York Times.

"Flights are being taken down because people aren't getting on aeroplanes."

'It has a 9/11 feel'

According to experts, the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak could be the worst crisis for the industry since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

"At the end of last week, we started seeing very sharp declines," Gary Kelly, chief executive of Southwest Airlines, said on CNBC.

"9/11 wasn't an economically driven issue for travel. It was more fear, quite frankly, and I think that that's really what's manifested this time … It has a 9/11 feel. Hopefully, we'll get this behind us very quickly."

In an interview with CNN, Global Business Travel Association executive director Scott Solombrino said confidence started to improve as time passed after the September 11 attacks. But coronavirus posed a different problem in that the concern about where and when to travel was growing each day in line with new reports of outbreaks around the world. Essentially, the number of people simply wanting to stay off planes poses an unexplored threat on the industry.

"It is fundamentally affecting the way many companies are now doing business," Solombrino said.

"If this turns into a global pandemic, the industry may well lose billions of dollars – an impact that will have negative ramifications for the entire global economy."

On Thursday, struggling British airline Flybe collapsed amid sinking demand.

Germany's Lufthansa and its subsidiaries Austrian Airlines and Swiss said they would cancel all flights to and from Israel for three weeks starting on Sunday after Israeli authorities announced tough restrictions on travellers from several countries because of the new virus.

Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong's flagship airline, said the concerns around travel had become so widespread, they were keeping around 120 planes out of the sky at any one time. In further cost-cutting measures, Cathay said 75 per cent of staff, or 25,000 employees of the group, would take unpaid leave because of lack of flights booked.

In the US, Southwest Airlines cut its revenue expectations for the quarter by US$200 million to US$300m.

National carrier Finnair is laying off its entire staff based in Finland for two weeks to a month due to the economic impact of the outbreak.

But the airlines across Europe face a bigger problem, one that could force more "ghost" flights than we've ever seen before.

European airlines forced to run 'ghost flights'

Some British airlines say they are being forced to operate empty ghost flights regardless during the coronavirus outbreak or risk losing airport landing slots, The Times reports.

Carriers are flying some jets without any passengers at all because of controversial "use it or lose it" rules governing space at European airports.

Earlier this week Airlines UK, which represents carriers, urged UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to intervene. The body wants the rule to be shelved until at least after the summer season when it is hoped the slump in passenger numbers driven by coronavirus will be over.

Operating empty flights burns thousands of tonnes of jet fuel unnecessarily, pushing up greenhouse gas emissions and damaging airlines' finances at a time when they are already under huge pressure.

Under European Union laws, airlines must operate 80 per cent of their allocated airport slots under normal circumstances or risk losing them to a competitor – the so-called 80/20 rule. It still applies to the UK under the terms of the Brexit transition agreement.

On the same day, Turkish Airlines flight TK55 flew from Singapore to Istanbul completely void of passengers.

However, it wasn't due to an absence of ticket holders. Rather, it was because a passenger on the inbound flight from Istanbul tested positive for coronavirus. As a result, the decision was made not to operate the flight as scheduled and instead just do the route with the pilots and 11 crew members on-board only.