No, it’s not just you. And it’s not just your imagination. You’re not the only air traveler feeling more pinched these days.
The data, in fact, prove that you aren’t crazy, and that you have every reason to feel pinched.
More than 201 million additional passengers boarded U.S. airlines’ flights in 2017 than did so in 2005, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation. But U.S. carriers actually operated 1.6 million fewer flights last year than in 2005.
So the mathematical equation is pretty simple: lots more passengers X fewer flights = more crowded conditions on planes.
Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that.
As anyone who’s flown in coach in the last few years knows U.S. carriers’ coach sections have morphed into something more closely resembling steerage on late 19th and early 20th Century steamships. Carriers have reduced “pitch” – the distance between a point on one seat to the same point on the seat ahead – from around 34 inches down to around 31 inches, or even less in some cases. That’s allowed them to wedge two, three, or even more rows of closely-smooshed seats into their planes, depending on the size of those planes. Additionally, a decade ago the average Boeing 777 – the biggest capacity wide body now serving in U.S. carriers’ fleets – featured nine-across seating in coach. Today, however, many carriers have bumped, or are in the process of bumping that up to 10-across seating (in addition to the pitch reductions they’ve already made or are planning).
The result: A decade ago the average flight on U.S. carriers (including both the big guys that operate huge wide body jets with 250 to 450 seats and “regional” carriers that operate planes with fewer than 100, or even fewer than 50 seats) carried just 69 passengers on average. Now the average load is up to 91 passengers, a 32% jump.
These tight conditions – carriers are filling, on average, more than 85% their seats this summer, meaning that most prime-time flights and nearly all flights on very popular routes are completely full – aren’t exactly new news. But it’s also not likely to comfort the expected record 16.5 million passengers who’ll be flying commercially over the long Labor Day holiday period, which officially got underway on Wednesday and runs through next Tuesday. That forecasted total is up 3.5% from the 16 million folks who flew on U.S. carriers during the Labor Day travel period in 2017.
John Heimlich, chief economist at Airlines For American, or A4A, the big carriers’ Washington trade group, said, “2018 has been an exceptionally busy year for air travel, with 20 out of the 25 busiest days ever recorded by the Transportation Security Administration occurring so far this year.”
Indeed, demand for travel on U.S. carriers has grown steadily since 2005, with the exception of recession-scarred 2008 and 2009. In 2005, more than 763.7 million passengers boarded U.S. carriers’ flights. Last year 964.7 million passengers got on U.S. carriers’ domestic and international flights. That’s a 26.3% increase in passengers over 12 years.
Considering only domestic U.S. flights, the number of passengers in 2017 was up 17.8% over 2005 to 741.7 million. Meanwhile the total number of domestic flights was down 18.5% to “just” 8.2 million vs. just over 10 million in 2005.
And 2018 is well on track to be another record-setter.
After offering a then-record total of 11.3 million flights in 2005, U.S. carriers gradually but relentlessly reducing the number of flights they offered beginning in 2006. The decline in flights offered on an annual basis bottomed out in 2014, when there were just 8.1 million flights. Since then the total number of flights has risen only modestly to last year’s 8.2 million. The total number of flights is expected to be up a smidge again this year.
Through the first five months of 2018 U.S. carriers offered 56,564 (or 1.7%) more flights than in the January-May period last year. But passenger boardings through the first five months were up 5% from the same period last year. That means the trend toward ever-more-crowded flights is continuing.
So yeah, you’ve got good reason to feel more crowded than ever when you travel this year.