Why Your Plane is Always Full

By James Fallows

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.)


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:

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.

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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