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Full Flights Will Cost Flyers (Not Just Money)

Among savvy travelers, it’s long been an assumption underlying their frequent flyer program strategy that fall was a great time to redeem airline miles for free flights. Fewer paying passengers meant more available award seats.

There was a comfort benefit to off-season flying as well. Flights with fewer passengers give travelers more elbow room, and more space means less stress.

But with the falloff in travel demand during the recent recession, airlines have cut flights significantly. In fact, in many cases they’ve reduced flights even more than travelers have cut back on flying. Which means that the remaining flights are flying fuller than ever.

Here’s how Delta summarized its October results: “System traffic in October 2009, including both Delta and Northwest operations, decreased 6.5 percent compared to October 2008 on an 8.3 percent decrease in capacity. Load factor increased 1.6 points to 84.2 percent.” Load factor is an industry metric, reflecting the percentage of seats occupied. And the net result of the month’s changes in supply and demand was an increase in load factor.

The same was true for Southwest. For the month, the airline flew 2.5 percent more total passengers, and 1.9 percent more revenue passenger miles (the number of passengers multiplied by miles flown), than it did a year ago. But the airline also reduced capacity by 9.4 percent.

When all the data is sliced and diced, the net result of the traffic increases and capacity decreases was again a higher load factor. The average Southwest B737 was 79.2 percent full during October, compared to 70.4 percent for the same period last year.

Similar forces have been in play elsewhere. American’s October load factor was 83.1 percent, up 4.1 points over last year. United’s was also 83.1 percent, versus 80.8 percent in 2008.

US Airways flew 82.6 percent full, the airline’s best-ever October.

These are high load factors for any month. But they’re especially high for a month that historically has been among the year’s weakest. Summer travel has long since abated. And there’s no major holiday to spike demand.

If October’s high load factors prove to be more than an anomaly, we could be witnessing the beginning of an era in which flights run full year-round.

That would be welcome news for the airlines, which would be delighted to smooth out the peaks and valleys of travel demand, especially if they can do so while maintaining high load factors. But the all-full-all-the-time scenario is a recipe for discomfort and frustration for travelers.

With fewer empty seats to buffer flyers crammed into coach, claustrophobia levels have nowhere to go but up. And not just during the summer crush, when business travelers have always known to minimize their flying to avoid the glut of families bound for Disneyland and Sea World.

For frequent flyers looking to cash in their miles for free flights, fewer unsold seats means lower odds of finding award seats available for booking.

Discomfort and frequent flyer aggravation aside, the reduction of flights to meet flagging demand will eventually give the airlines what they’ve been seeking since 2001: pricing power. That’s marketing-speak for the ability to raise ticket prices.

If high load factors are indeed a year-round reality, flyers should prepare themselves for a new chapter in the travel drama, characterized by paying more for their tickets, enjoying their flights less, and receiving fewer rewards for their loyalty.

Not exactly the stuff of advertising headlines.

There is a bright spot among the gloomy prospects. With fewer travelers jamming the country’s airports, you’ll at least be able to find an empty seat in the departure area. Once onboard, though, that roomy airport is likely to seem like a distant dream.

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