Less Free To Move About The Cabin

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 3, 2007

FORT WORTH -- The day started poorly for Allison Quate.

Her flight from Oklahoma to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport was severely delayed. She missed her connecting flight to Washington and spent six hours marching between terminals and gates, trying unsuccessfully to get on another plane. They were all full.

By 5 p.m., the 23-year-old found herself standing anxiously at her fifth gate, competing with 22 other standby passengers for a seat on the American Airlines jet bound for Washington.

"This is very disappointing," she said, just before the gate agent closed the door, forcing Quate to head to another plane. She eventually landed in Washington at 1:30 a.m., 11 hours behind schedule.

"If you miss your flight, you can't catch another one because they are so full," she said. "If there is even one little problem, you just aren't going to make it."

Over the course of a year that many airline passengers would rather forget, most attention has been focused on travel woes created by record-setting flight delays. But another trend may be causing as much havoc and frustration for passengers: Planes have never been so packed, federal data show.

The jammed flights have changed the experience of flying. Passengers complain of less personal space as they get poked by others' elbows. Overhead bins fill up. Even bathroom lines stretch farther down the aisles, frustrating those with aisle seats. And for unfortunate travelers like Quate, the packed planes have upset travel plans, making it difficult for airlines to recover after disruptions and get passengers to their proper destinations.

Planes are particularly full during the holiday and summer travel seasons, when leisure travelers and business travelers compete for space. "You just feel like a sardine," said Shirley Warren, 57, stuck in a middle seat for a flight from Washington to Dallas. "It's not comfortable."

Sitting in the last row of coach class on the same flight, Alicia Mosher, 18, said the crowded plane -- it was only90 percent full -- made her feel "anxious."

"You just don't feel as relaxed," she said.

Federal data show that planes have grown steadily more packed in the past two decades. In 1990, U.S. air carriers' planes were about 62 percent full. By 2000, the figure had climbed to 71 percent. Through the first eight months of this year, planes were 81 percent full, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Why the increase? A strong economy has spurred business and leisure travel in recent years. But airline executives and analysts point to complex forces that are also responsible for driving up "load factors," the industry's measure of how many seats get filled.

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