Summer's gone, but cramped flights endure

Ah, fall! The quiet, stress-free season for air travel. When business travelers heave a collective sigh of relief and return to the skies in full force, confident that the hordes of summer revelers will have vacated the country's airports. When airlines roll out their most lucrative promotions to fill those empty planes. When civility and comfort replace the chaos and overcrowding of summer.

But a quick review of the airlines' flight performance for the month of October suggests that the summer crush has not dissipated.

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American, for example, flew 8.2 million passengers last month, up 4.2% over the same month last year. More telling was the carrier's load factor, the percentage of its seats that were occupied by passengers: up three percentage points to 80.6%. American's outsized performance was no anomaly.

United today reported its highest-ever October passenger load factor, 81.1%. Delta's rose to 79.6%, from 77.1% last year. US Airways' October load factor jumped more than 3 percentage points, to 80.5%. And Continental's load factor was 79.5%, a record for the month.

Could we be seeing a long-term structural change in travel seasonality? It's too soon to tell.

But in the short term, the implications of the airlines' robust October performance are clear: less, less, and fewer. Less comfort (the inevitable byproduct of cramped planes). Less value (strong demand means less discounting). And fewer bonus miles (no need to promote full flights).

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