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Spring Travel Forecast: Full Flights, Maximum Discomfort

Spring Travel Forecast: Full Flights, Maximum Discomfort

Airlines for America (A4A), the trade group representing U.S. airlines, this week released its forecast for Spring 2014 flights.

For April and May, A4A is projecting that air travel will increase to its highest level in six years. During the two-month period, U.S. airlines will carry 129.5 million passengers, a record 17.1 million of whom will be flying internationally.

These robust numbers, A4A would have us believe, are a good thing. And for the airlines and their investors, they are.

What A4A neglected to mention — naturally, since its goal is to present the industry’s best face — is the effect the full flights will have on the comfort of the traveling public.

Already this year, most U.S. carriers are flying more than 80 percent full. For January (the latest month reported for these airlines), American’s load factor was 80.3 percent, United’s was 80.9 percent, and JetBlue’s was 82.8 percent.

Delta reported load factors for both January and February at 81.2 percent, and Alaska Airlines’ were 83.3 percent and 85.1 percent, respectively.

January and February are generally among the airlines’ slowest months. So any increase, especially an outsized one like A4A is predicting, is bound to push discomfort levels into the stratosphere.

The New Normal

As the airlines have “rationalized” their operations following the most recent recession, reducing the number of flights and downgrading to smaller aircraft, high load factors have become the new normal, remaining at or above 80 percent year-round. And when they spike, as they do during the summer months and, this year, during the spring as well, the average will edge up into the mid-80s.

For flyers, those full flights mean a spike in the already-high levels of discomfort.

To escape the crush, frequent flyers can — and should — leverage their elite status to upgrade, or cash in miles for premium-cabin flights. But if you’re an infrequent flyer, there’s not much to be done about it. Book an aisle seat whenever possible, and fly on carriers like JetBlue that feature an extra smidgen of legroom. Perhaps pay extra to upgrade to economy plus. But mostly, it’s a matter of grinning and keeping your claustrophobia in check.

Welcome to the new normal.

Reader Reality Check

How do you cope with full flights?

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