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Holiday Flight Forecast: Long Lines, Full Planes

Airlines for America, a trade group representing U.S. airlines, is forecasting that around 42 million passengers will fly between Monday, December 17, 2012, and Wednesday, January 6, 2013.

That's down about 1 percent from last year. But the airlines have reduced capacity, so planes will be somewhat fuller this year than last.

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How full? Projected load factor, the percentage of occupied seats, for the period is 85 percent. That's an average over all flights and routes for the whole holiday period. So more popular flights on specific days will be even fuller.

The busiest days, according to Airlines for America: the weekend preceding Christmas (December 21-23); the day after Christmas (December 26); and January 2.

Full flights mean even less onboard comfort than usual. And the lines at security checkpoints and boarding gates will be longer than ever.

Making the Best of Holiday Travel

Flyers who are not elite members of frequent-flyer programs do have some options for making their holiday trips less physically and emotionally taxing.

This would, for instance, be an ideal time to use miles for an upgrade, or even pay extra for a premium-economy seat on airlines that offer them. On a full plane, even a few extra inches of legroom can make a big difference, especially on longer flights.

With easy access to overhead bin space for carry-ons, priority boarding is another perk that is extra-desirable when flights are running full. It's a featured benefit of some pricey co-branded airline credit cards, and can be purchased for an extra $68 with American's new Choice fares.

Most travelers, however, will opt to tough it out and fly as cheaply as possible. For them, the best advice is to factor plenty of waiting-in-line time into their plans, and to dig deep for as much patience and composure as they can muster.

Ever the drum-beater for the airlines, Airlines for America reminds us of the upside: "While average airfares have risen modestly year over year, the price of air travel has not kept pace with overall U.S. inflation.... In real terms it costs 14 percent less to fly today than it did in 2000." That's good to know, but it may be scant consolation for millions of holiday flyers.

Reader Reality Check

How do you survive the holiday travel crush?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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