When coronavirus first struck and turned the travel world upside down this spring, there was a silver lining for some: Planes were nearly empty.
Sights like this American Airlines flight from Phoenix (PHX) to Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) in April were commonplace for months. On a plane with nearly 130 seats, there were just 10 passengers.
Months later, everything in travel has changed. So unless if you’re flying an airline blocking middle seats, you’re better off assuming your next flight will be full – or close to it. And for airlines like Delta, Alaska, JetBlue, and Southwest guaranteeing you an empty middle seat, it’s more likely now that every other seat will be filled.
Here’s a photo from a Delta flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix this week. Not quite as empty, right?
So what happened? If travel is down so much, why are planes filling up again?
Dissecting the Data Behind Fuller Planes
The short answer: Airlines are flying a fraction as many planes as they once were.
As travel demand cratered in March and April, airlines scrambled to shrink into survival mode. Running 100% of your flights for less than 10% of the travelers is a waste – and a costly one, at that. So airlines began cutting back, slashing international routes, reducing the frequencies of flights between cities, and dropping some service altogether.
Why should Delta fly 10-plus times a day from Minneapolis to Chicago, and vice versa? And does it really need to fly to both Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) and Chicago-Midway (MDW)?
But that’s difficult and time-consuming work: Grounding planes and consolidating flight schedules doesn’t happen overnight. You can see it in this chart from our friends at JetTip.net, who have tracked this travel downturn from the start. You can see how the major U.S. airlines began reducing flights in mid-March, bottoming out around May.
Airlines spent months over the spring and summer rightsizing their operations to fit the strange new world of travel during a pandemic. By now, they’ve largely accomplished that.
Major airlines like American, Delta, and United have now cut their flights by 45% to as much as 60% compared to the pre-pandemic period, according to JetTip.net’s data. According to data from Airlines for America, the total number of seats flying on U.S. airlines today is down by nearly 60% compared to this time last year.
With travelers slowly returning to the sky as fewer planes are operating, it means planes are much more full, on average, than they were just a few months ago.
That’s undeniable when you look at this JetTip.net graph, which plots how many travelers move through U.S. airports against how many flights are operating. You can see where that percentage bottoms out in April – when flights were at their emptiest.
This doesn’t mean your next flight will be jampacked. Airlines for America reports that domestic U.S. flights are still just 48.4% full, on average.
And just what you find onboard will vary based on what airline you fly, your route, as well as when you travel. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays always see fewer travelers, while Sundays, Mondays, and Fridays are typically the busiest.
The days of banking on an empty flight are over. Every flight on each airline on varying days will be different. But you should expect your next flight to be much more full these days than just a few months ago.