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This Summer, Comfort and Awards Will Both Be Scarce

Comfort and the availability of frequent flyer award seats have something in common. They both rise and fall according to how full the airlines' planes are.

The industry measure of aircraft occupancy rates is the load factor, the percentage of seats occupied over an airline's entire route network.

When load factors are high, planes are chock-a-block with passengers, which means boarding and deplaning are prolonged, overhead bins are full to overflowing, and seating is uncomfortably cramped.

High load factors also mean fewer seats for frequent flyers trying to redeem their miles for free trips, as the airlines try to squeeze as many paying passengers as possible onto every flight.

What can flyers expect this summer?

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I don't have access to the airlines' advance booking data, but over the past few days many airlines have released their load factors for last month. And what we can say with a high degree of certainty is that loads will be even higher during the peak summer months of June, July, and August.

To give you an idea of what's to come, following is a list of the load factors of the largest U.S. airlines that have so far reported their operating performance for the month of May:

  • Alaska Airlines - 81.4 percent, up 4.6 percentage points over May 2009
  • American - 82.8 percent, up 3.6 points
  • Continental - 83.8 percent, up 2.9 points
  • Delta - 83.9 percent, up 1.6 points
  • Hawaiian Airlines - 85.5 percent, up 2.2 points
  • Republic - 82.0 percent, up 6 points (Republic owns Midwest, Frontier, and several regional carriers)
  • Southwest - 77.2 percent, up 2.6 points (and the 11th straight record-high monthly load factor)
  • US Airways - 82.9 percent, up 0.1 point

Two things stand out. First, all are up over the year-ago load factors, pretty significantly in some cases. And second, with the exception of Southwest's, all are over 80 percent.

That means that both comfort and frequent flyer awards will be scarce this summer.

How scarce? Well, if you flew last summer, or tried to cash in miles for flights, you have some idea. Except this summer, it will be worse.

Consider this a heads-up. I'll have some tips on making the most of summer travel in an upcoming post.

Reader Reality Check

Have you tried to redeem frequent flyer miles for summer flights? If so, how readily available were award seats?

How do you cope with the discomfort associated with packed planes?

Read comments or add your own insight!
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