Why Your Plane is Always Full

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I learned long ago the cruel but true principle: other people's travel problems are not interesting.* Corollaries: other people's traffic problems, and other people's weather ("you won't believe how hot/cold/dry/wet/windy it is here!"), also are not interesting. We feign sympathy, but as long as our own flight is on time, traffic on our highway moves along, the weather's nice where we are, we don't really care. (*Exception: unless the occasion for an otherwise-interesting travel narrative, from Paul Theroux to Atlantic site posts.)

Therefore I obviously am not "complaining" in mentioning that I got up before 5:30am today to get an 8:15am flight out of Dulles, only to find an email from the airline saying that the flight had been delayed to 10:45. The inbound flight -- from Dubai! -- is late, and there are no spare planes to go on to San Francisco. OK -- gladder to know now than before leaving the house for the airport, though ideally it would have great to know last night. Nothing to be done. But it was a serendipitous intro to the very next item in the email inbox: a report on how substantially airline capacity continues to be cut. There just are fewer flights anywhere, and more of them are full, than in yesteryear.

The report is here, from the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation in Australia, and it includes three charts, from Bob Herbst of AirlineFinancials.com, that tell the story. First, capacity changes by the major carriers in the past year. Small increases for Jet Blue and Air Tran, big drops for the larger carriers. (ASMs = available seat miles, or total seats on all flights.)

Herbst1.png

Second, total capacity for all U.S.  airlines, compared with ten years ago. In toto there are fewer flights, on smaller planes, than a decade ago:
Herbst4.png

Finally, "load factor" -- how full those planes are. Answer: they're all a lot fuller. Blue bars show how crowded the planes were ten years ago; red bars, how crowded they are now.
Herbst5.png

At the moment I'm not talking environmental aspects of reduced air travel or business efficiencies of small, full planes. I'm not talking about security hassles. I'm not talking "legacy carrier" versus "low cost carrier" differences in business approach. Not even mentioning that the trends I've been following in China are dramatically the opposite -- it's the only place in the world to have finished a decade of ever-surging air travel. Just observing a quite striking decade-long shift. If you think the planes always seem to be full now, and that the system has far less "give," you're right.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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