Booking Strategy

How to Survive This Summer’s Full Flights

The airlines are flying full. As in record-breaking full. As in claustrophobia-inducing full. Here’s how to mitigate the discomfort…

This week, several of the largest airlines reported operating results for July, including their load factors (the percentage of seats occupied) for the month. If you’ve traveled by air this summer, the results won’t come as any surprise: The airlines have been flying full. As in record-breaking full. As in claustrophobia-inducing full. As in:

  • Alaska 88.1%
  • American 87.3%
  • Delta 87.9%
  • JetBlue 87.0%
  • Southwest 87.7% (an all-time record for the carrier)
  • United 87.0% (88.9% for domestic-only routes)

Those are average loads over the airlines’ system-wide networks, so more popular routes were running closer to 100 percent full. And compounding the discomfort of full flights, the airlines have been steadily reducing the legroom between seats.

What can you do to mitigate the double whammy of crammed-full flights and too-tight seats? Short of splurging for a first-class ticket, there’s no magic bullet. Leverage your elite status to upgrade, or cash in miles for premium-cabin flights. Book an aisle seat whenever possible, and fly on carriers like JetBlue that feature an extra smidgen of legroom. Perhaps pay extra to upgrade to economy plus. Fly non-stops, to minimize your seat time. But mostly, it’s a matter of grinning and keeping your claustrophobia in check.

And on the subject of moderating your expectations, banish all hope that things will improve much after the summer crush. The load factors for United, for example, averaged 83.3 percent for the 2015 year to date, which includes the traditionally slow post-New Year’s months, as well as June and July. Full flights are the new normal.

Reader Reality Check

How do you manage the discomfort of summer flying?

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By Tim Winship

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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