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Emptier Planes: Myth or Reality?

Conventional wisdom says flights should have an abundance of vacant seats, what with the severe and ongoing economic downturn and all. But a recent poll of SmarterTravel readers suggests this may be more fiction than fact. 62 percent of our poll-takers said planes are “as cramped as ever,” while a mere 14 percent said “Hello legroom!” 24 percent noted that it depends on the flight.

These results seem to contradict a trend within the industry, which is that customer demand is dropping faster than the airlines can cut capacity. That should mean more empty seats on planes, right? Yes, but airlines aren’t cutting flights across the board—you can still fly to popular destinations, and probably with a convenient schedule. Our survey illustrates this, as 74 percent of respondents said they found emptier planes on weekday flights, but only 30 percent said the same about weekend service. Weekends, of course, are popular with leisure flyers, while weekdays are generally the domain of business travelers.

We also asked readers to share their experience in the air. As you might expect, given the poll results, most people wrote in to talk about their crowded planes.

“All the flights I’ve been on are fuller…at or near capacity…Southwest and American planes.”

“I flew to Europe twice in the past year – with many connecting flights and every flights was so full – maybe 1 or 2 seats were empty.”

“I am flying at least once a week, and all my flights have been full.”

“All my flights for the most part have either been oversold or near capacity.”

“Have flown both to Los Angeles and Cabo San Lucas in the past 2 months. All flights were booked solid. But my daughter flew on a different airlines to join us in Cabo and her flight was pretty empty.”

“Just returned from Paris yesterday on a United flight to Dulles. The Economy Plus section was empty – which was great for us frequent fliers. The regular economy section was full, however.”

“Heathow to JFK Delta flights have been much emptier than usual. Take a whole middle row to yourself if you want… The same flights last year were much busier. Security has been a breeze. I sat in Heathrow Costa Cafe for 3 hours and counted a total of 11 customers on a Thursday after lunch time waiting for a flight to JFK (late Feb). Empty.”

That last comment reinforces what seems to be happening in the industry: Formerly busy business routes are flailing, while leisure service (Los Cabos, Paris) are holding on. We’ll see how this develops as the summer travel season kicks in. Will vacationers still find crowded planes? Will airports be eerily deserted on Tuesday mornings? Keep writing in with your experiences, and thanks to everyone who took the survey.

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