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Airlines predict record-full summer
Domestic airlines are packing more people into each plane this summer.

United and Northwest (NWAC) say they filled a higher percentage of their seats in June than any other month ever. Continental (CAL), US Airways (UAIR), Alaska (ALK) and Southwest (LUV) say last month was a record-setter for any June.

"We'll see record high loads throughout the summer," says economist Dave Swierenga of airline consulting firm AeroEcon. Among the major airlines, Northwest reported the fullest planes in June — 86.4%. Planes of all the major airlines, on average, flew more than three-quarters full last month.

  How full is full?
percentage of seats filled by paying passengers last month and the change from June 2003.
Airline
Filled seats
%. point change
Northwest
86.4%
4.6
United
86.0%
4.0
JetBlue
85.5%
-1.5
Continental
82.4%
1.4
US Airways
81.6%
3.0
Delta
81.3%
0.7
ATA
80.9%
-0.7
America West
80.5%
-1.2
American
79.0%
0.2
Southwest
78.8%
4.2
Alaska
76.6%
3.6
AirTran
77.3%
2.9
Source: The airlines

Planes are flying fuller because of surging travel demand and tight restraint on the supply of seats by cash-strapped airlines.

During the first five months of this year, the number of airline passengers has almost reached the pre-9/11 boom year of 2000. But passengers this year were competing for 5% fewer seats, Swierenga says.

Some passengers say the fuller flights not only cramp their comfort, but also increase the likelihood of being bumped from an overbooked flight.

"All the planes are completely full," says frequent-flier Crawford Hammett of Spartanburg, S.C. He says he's been on many overbooked flights recently, including one US Airways flight.

US Airways spokesman David Castelveter says the airline is doing its best to fill seats without having to bump.

Yet fuller planes alone won't be enough to turn around the beleaguered industry, which is on track to lose about $3 billion this year.

Contributing to the fuller planes:

Fare competition. US Airways says its flights from Philadelphia offering its discount GoFares flew 85% full in June, compared with about 81% on its big jets as a whole. The airline implemented the lower fares in response to discounter Southwest entering the Philadelphia market.

Route strategy. United's Jenna Obluck says the airline's higher loads are due to restructuring its route system to focus on those most popular with travelers.

Plane types. Airlines have ditched some jumbos in favor of smaller jets, which are easier to sell out.

Schedules. Airlines are reluctant to add flights when fares are low and fuel prices are high. "They don't need any more capacity. Even at 80% load factors they are losing money," says Denver-based airline consultant Mike Boyd.

 
 
 
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