Sardine Time for Air Travelers

When was the last time you saw an empty seat on a flight? It may have been awhile, considering that nearly 70 million of us crammed onto U.S. airline planes in August alone meaning load factors were at a record high. If you feel a bit like a flying sardine these days, you’re not alone.

LISTEN: FareCompare’s Rick Seaney is feeling a little cramped.

Airplane ‘Load Factors’ Rise

A load factor measures how full a plane is and as the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reveals, planes were very full this summer. The latest figures –  for August – show a domestic load factor of 86.8 percent, a record high.

By the way, a load factor of 86.8 percent doesn’t mean planes were 13 percent empty. Most empty seats were on flights most of us don’t want (like red-eyes) but the bottom line is, there weren’t many empties at all and that’s just the way the airlines like it. For passengers, however, there are some drawbacks.

Bad News for passengers

Rick Seaney, air travel analyst and CEO of FareCompare has a list of downsides for passengers:

  • Nowhere to put passengers when flights are cancelled
  • No incentive for airlines to offer cheaper flights (for vacationers or business travelers)
  • Reduced award ticket inventory, making it harder to use free tickets earned with miles
  • Fewer convenient airfare choices for procrastinators

Good News for Economy

According to the BTS, in August 2014 “Demand has exceeded pre-recession levels every month of 2014 except February” and capacity was at its highest August level ever, greater than the pre-recession August of 2007. The recession, it would seem, at last is over – as least as far as the air travel industry is concerned.


Updated: November 19, 2014