The New Normal: Crowded, Uncomfortable Skies

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics yesterday released performance data for the U.S. airlines through the first month of summer, June.

If you traveled by air during that month, you already know first hand the key finding: Flights were full.

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Just how full were they?

According to the report, "The June 2013 systemwide load factor of 87.0 percent, the domestic load factor of 87.0 percent and the international load factor of 86.8 percent were all record highs for the month of June as year-over-year growth in revenue passenger-miles exceeded both domestic and international capacity expansion."

But the real story here isn't just about a single month's record load factors. It's the story of the new reality in air travel, in which flights can be expected to run 80 percent full year-round.

Including June, the year-to-date load factor for U.S. airlines stood at 82.7 percent. That's five off-peak months, plus just one summer month. The average for the year will surely exceed 80 percent.

While such high load factors are welcomed by the airlines and their stockholders, they translate directly into more discomfort for travelers who face longer boarding lines, less overhead space for bags, and higher claustrophobia quotients. United's new ad campaign notwithstanding, the skies have never been less friendly.

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 if you're traveling on a strict budget, it's mostly a matter of maintaining your composure and keeping your claustrophobia in check.

Reader Reality Check

How do you cope with the crowded, uncomfortable skies?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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