Today's (and Tomorrow's) Flight Forecast: Full

The Department of Transportation's (DOT) Bureau of Transportation Statistics released its report on last year's airline traffic yesterday. While the results may hearten airlines and other travel-service providers, travelers themselves will find little cause for celebration.

First, the facts:

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  • U.S. airlines carried 736.6 million passengers in 2012, an increase of 0.8 percent over the previous year.
  • Domestic passenger traffic was up 0.6 percent from 2011, to 642.2 million passengers.
  • International passenger traffic was up 2.0 percent, to 94.4 million passengers.
  • Load factor (the percentage of seats occupied) for the year was 82.8 percent overall, and 83.4 percent on domestic-only flights.

According to an analysis of the DOT data by Airlines for America, an airline-industry trade group, the 2012 load factors were at "the highest level for scheduled service since 1945."

Naturally, industry promoters relish the achievement. John Heimlich, Airlines for America's chief economist, spun the numbers thusly:

Last year, U.S. airlines set a modern-day record for passenger load factor, which speaks directly to their efficient utilization of seating capacity. While the U.S. airline industry operated approximately 2 percent fewer flights than in 2011, it carried 737 million passengers, the most since 2008. In fact, our nation's carriers accommodated more than 83 million passengers internationally, reflecting our increasing presence and service offerings in highly competitive global markets.

Absent from such gloating analyses of the airlines' performance metrics is any consideration of the passenger experience. There's no getting around it: The inevitable byproduct of packed planes is a degradation of the flying experience.

With few (or no) empty seats, the claustrophobia quotient has soared.

Space to store your carry-on in an overhead bin? Good luck with that.

With fewer unsold seats, frequent-flyer awards are scarcer than ever.

The same with elite upgrades—they're fewer and farther between.

The line to the lavatories is how long?

New Day, Old Way

Today's aircraft and airport procedures are relics of a long period of commercial aviation during which average load factors were in the high-60s and low-70s. Those days are gone forever.

The new reality calls for new equipment, new procedures, new attention to making air travel not just affordable but bearable.

Among the upgrades required:

  • More spacious, comfortable seats in coach
  • Bigger overhead bins to accommodate more carry-on bags
  • Stricter enforcement of size restrictions of carry-ons
  • More efficient boarding routines
  • More generous award-availability policies

In the meantime, flyers must suffer the consequences of the airlines' success in "right-sizing" their operations and downsize their expectations.

Reader Reality Check

How can air travel be improved in the new era of full flights?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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