Full airplanes, long ticket lines and clogged security checkpoints are the norm this summer as airlines squeeze more profit out of each flight by squeezing in more passengers.
The most recent figures from the Air Transport Association show airplanes averaged 71 percent full in May compared to 69.9 percent a year earlier.
American Airlines saw its June figures go up to 73.3 percent, its most crowded month in the ‘90s. Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines says it loaded 2.3 million passengers in Atlanta this June, the most ever boarded at a single station in the history of commercial aviation.
“Overall it’s been a very good summer, both for the airlines and for the travel agencies,” said Eric Munro, chief executive of Uniglobe Wide-World Travel of San Diego.
Airplanes packed elbow-to-elbow are providing a challenge for people who want specific flights, but industry insiders say seats are available for folks willing to go at off-times or willing to travel in the middle of the week.
“The summer traffic has been very, very heavy, but we’ve been able to get seats for practically everybody as long as they’re flexible,” Munro said.
Fewer empty seats mean fewer free upgrades, overloaded overhead bins and louder flights, say frequent fliers.
“Seat selections are very poor. I find myself in the middle seat more and more,” said Randy Peterson, who flies about 300,000 miles a year and publishes InsideFlyer magazine.
“On the downside, people are standing in line and there are more flights that are overbooked and that’s one thing that’s made me nervous about making connections. Still, it’s great for the airline industry. I hope they’re saving some of that money for the lean times,” he said.
Reasons why the planes are so full range from the booming economy to the number of seats available.
“There are a couple of things effecting this,” said David Swierenga, chief economist for the ATA. “The most obvious is the capacity is growing slower than demand for air travel. We’re not adding airplanes as quickly as passengers.”
But other things are also at play.
“One is that airline prices have generally held to levels that are about the same as last year and that would tend to stimulate additional demand for air travel, also the economy has been growing very strongly and that is also a driver for air travel,” said Swierenga.
Ed Stewart, spokesman for Southwest Airlines, said the Dallas-based airline has been so full that some employees are buying tickets rather than waiting for a free seat to open up.
Southwest, which added capacity during the last year, filled 66.5 percent of its seats with an increase of 2.8 percent in revenue passengers carried.
“I think that people are pretty confident about the economy and that has gotten them out of the backyard and into the airports,” said Stewart.
Fort Worth, Texas-based American agrees that the economy is a big reason for the increase.
“More people are traveling. The economy is obviously part of the story,” said Al Comeaux at American. But he adds that another reason is that airlines are doing a better job anticipating demand for their flights.
“We have gotten better at determining how many lower-fare passengers we can have on our planes. Since we’re better at predicting that, we can offer what’s known as ‘distressed inventory’ at a reduced rate,” he said.
Customers who use the company’s Internet site can sign up to get a weekly list of sale fares e-mailed.
Delta has its own way to fill empty seats at the last minute. With its “Escape” plan passengers can pay a membership fee of $89 and then call each Sunday night to get a listing of about seven trips offered at deeply discounted prices. Computers help airlines target these markets.
“With the systems that carriers have today they can manage loads flight by flight,” said Swierenga. “It’s a situation that’s very delicate. The risk on a passenger side is that airlines will be so full that they can’t find a seat and that’s a risk to the airline because that’s a passenger that they will never carry.”
Kimberly King, a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Delta, said the airline watches loads closely to avoid those problems.
“We put a lot of energy into studying travel patterns so we make sure we have plenty of seats available,” she said.
Although flights are crammed at the height of the summer, many airline watchers expect sales at the end of the season.
Continental Airlines, United and TWA all have announced sales.
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