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Summer Forecast: Flights Full, Discomfort Aplenty

Summer Forecast: Flights Full, Discomfort Aplenty

A number of U.S. airlines have reported their operating performance numbers for June, providing a glimpse into the state of air travel this summer, and beyond.

For financial analysts, the traffic numbers, taken together with average ticket prices, are a key indicator of the industry’s overall health — whether there’s strong or weak demand for air travel, and whether the airlines have right-sized their fleets and flight frequencies to efficiently meet that demand. High load factors, the percentage of seats occupied, coupled with high prices, are a positive sign.

For travelers, on the other hand, high load factors mean long lines and crowded planes. And high ticket prices mean, well, high ticket prices.

Flights: Crowded, Expensive

For June, American’s planes flew 86.9 percent full overall, and 88.8 percent full on domestic-only flights. Revenue, measured as passenger revenue per available seat mile, or PRASM, was 14.39 cents per mile. That, according to American, was “an all-time record high for any month” for the carrier.

Great numbers for American and its shareholders, in other words, but a double-whammy for flyers, who paid more to endure more discomfort.

US Airways hasn’t reported its PRASM numbers, but its June load factor was 88.2 percent, a record for the month.

United’s load factor for the month was 87.7 percent, and the company estimated that June PRASM had increased by 3.5 to 4.5 percent year over year.

Delta flew 87.5 percent full for the month, with a 1 percent improvement in PRASM over last June.

The New Normal

There’s no escaping these big numbers for the foreseeable future. While the high load factors will ease off in the fall, they will remain at or above 80 percent year-round.

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.

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  • WatchingFromOverThere

    Don’t be seduced only by price. Often the difference between one airline and another is $50 or less. Give your business to the airlines that treat you better, even if only a little.