US Airlines Packed in More Fliers Last Month

New performance reports from airlines suggest that jetliners in the USA flew more full last month than in any April in history.

And the early results from April, which indicate that more than 80% of U.S. airlines' seats were filled with paying passengers, portend a record-setting -- and uncomfortably crowded -- summer travel season ahead.

Seven airlines that have reported for April all show fuller planes. No.4 Northwest ran fullest: 84.9%. No.1 American filled 81.7% of its seats. And No.5 Continental filled 82.9%. No.3 Delta, despite a public battle with pilots over cost cuts that included threats of a strike or shutdown in mid-April, filled 77.6% of its seats. Even discounters Southwest and AirTran, which normally record load factors lower than the big network carriers, came close to filling 80% of their April seats.

Filing such a high percentage of available seats systemwide means that flights on the most popular routes at the most convenient times were likely to be flying full. Traveler Lou DeLuco, a sale representative from Scottsdale, Ariz., said the crowded conditions lately have landed him more and more often "in the back of the plane or in the dreaded middle seat."

For all of 2005, the domestic airline industry filled 77.6% of its seats, according to the Air Transport Association. The April numbers are good news for an industry that has lost more than $40billion over the last five years. Better yet for the industry, travelers have been paying on average about 13% more for their tickets than last summer.

But ATA chief economist John Heimlich said in the group's 2006 outlook statement, published in January, that despite big price increases since last summer, "passenger revenue is about $25billion per year below where it ought to be based on the historical relationship between spending on air travel and the nation's economy."

The industry's flying capacity is expected to shrink about 2% this year, but consumers are already feeling the squeeze, physically and fiscally.

Frequent-flier Kathy Brousseau, a data warehouse consultant from Lexington, S.C., says its difficult to get seats and "to get them at a reasonable cost," because Delta has both reduced the number of flights to nearby Columbia, S.C., and downsized its service there to regional jets. "The flights are full and generally overbooked."

Flying in coach is "like being in a two-seat convertible with eight people to begin with," says Glenn Floyd, a human resources executive from Vancouver, Wash. Now, with planes so full, "creature comforts suffer" and both the boarding process and in-flight service are much slower. And, he says, "It seems the patience of the flight crews has been depleted."

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