Stand By for Crowded Planes Over Summer

Nearly 207 million passengers are expected to travel this summer, about 2 million more than last season, according to the Air Transport Association.
Nearly 207 million passengers are expected to travel this summer, about 2 million more than last season, according to the Air Transport Association. (James A. Parcell - The Washington Post)
By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Heading off for a two-week business trip, Gary Hacker made it aboard his 4 p.m. flight to Chicago -- but his 50-pound Samsonite suitcase wasn't as lucky.

United Airlines had two other flights within hours from Reagan National to Chicago, but Hacker's bag didn't arrive at his hotel until 5 a.m., a few hours before the software trainer from Dupont Circle had a business meeting.

"I was in casual clothes. I had no change of underwear, no contact lens solution and I had a meeting the next morning," said Hacker, who plans to stuff more clothes into a larger carry-on bag in the future.

Hacker's flight in late April was a preview of the woes awaiting travelers during the busy summer travel season. Planes were already packed in April, and passengers planning travel in the months ahead should brace for a season of long lines in the terminal, tight quarters on board, delayed flights and mishandled luggage.

While a headache for travelers, crowded planes signal that airlines have made strides in reorganizing their operations and improving their bottom lines. For years, the carriers have suffered financially because they operated too many flights with too many oversize, fuel-guzzling planes. Now, they have trimmed flights and parked oversize jets to get more passengers in their seats at a lower cost.

In April, United filled a record 83 percent of its seats, a 3.4 percent increase from the same month a year ago. Northwest, American, Continental and US Airways filled 80 percent or more of their seats.

Nearly 207 million passengers are expected to travel this summer, about 2 million more than last season, according to the Air Transport Association.

Members of the House aviation subcommittee this month expressed concern for travelers over the summer travel month, especially as airlines and the Transportation Security Administration, which manages checkpoints, struggle with understaffing.

Last year, airlines lost or mishandled baggage at a rate 23 percent higher than in 2004, for a total of 3.6 million bags mishandled, according to the Transportation Department.

At Delta Air Lines, tighter schedules and smaller aircraft have resulted in 4,315 paid customers getting bumped from flights in the first three months of the year, nearly double the number Delta bumped during the same period a year ago.

Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin said Delta has since corrected the problem, which she called a "one-time event."

Travel experts say airlines this summer will be slower to cancel flights for mechanical problems because of the difficulty they would have in finding available seats on alternative flights. As a result, passengers could face more and longer delays.

"If it takes six hours to fix a plane, people are going to have to wait," said Terry Trippler, an analyst with "Two years ago, airlines would have canceled flights and rebooked people on another airline. Now there's no place to put them. They have to operate those flights."

Picketing at National: Air traffic controllers at Washington's Reagan National Airport this week have begun passing out leaflets to travelers, seeking support in their labor negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which has targeted about a dozen airports in its campaign, is protesting a planned salary cut that is part of the FAA's overall cost-reduction effort.

JetBlue Commercials: JetBlue Airways representatives will be outside Union Station (near the Metro) today through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., looking for JetBlue customers willing to talk about their experiences with the airline for its Web site and future TV commercials. The airline chose to set up the booth at Union Station because it wanted "a pedestrian-friendly area" and wanted get people in their everyday, casual, out-of-the-airport environment, airline spokesman Todd Burke said.

Washington is one of 10 cities where JetBlue is seeking testimonials. The airline will set up a private booth where individuals can offer personal anecdotes about traveling on the airline. Those chosen, however, will not be paid, a JetBlue spokeswoman said.

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