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Coming soon to a plane near you: The Big Squeeze

Got elbow room?

For travelers, the answer to that question used to vary with the season. During the summer months, and around Christmas, flights were packed and elbow room was non-existent. And during the off-peak months, when demand for air travel eased, flyers could expect emptier planes and plenty of room to spread out.

The future of elbow room is shaping up to look a lot more like the summer crush than the relatively comfortable capaciousness of off-season flying. Consider the load-factor reports issued by several major airlines over the past week.

American, the world’s largest carrier, had a load factor (the percentage of seats occupied) of 83.9 percent in March. Not so long ago, load factors of 80 percent were attained exclusively during the highest-demand months. And March has never been a busy month for travel.

American wasn’t alone in flying full during March.

Northwest’s load factor for the month was 87.0 percent. United’s was 82.7 percent. And US Airways’ was 84.5 percent.

With load factors that high, the odds of a passenger’s having an empty seat next to him are next to practically nil. In other words, full flights and comfort are mutually exclusive. And as full as flights are now, they will be fuller still before the end of the year.

Notwithstanding its high March load factors, Northwest has announced plans to cut domestic flights by about five percent. Assuming demand remains constant, such a move inevitably increases load factors, further degrading passenger comfort.

Similarly, US Airways plans to reduce capacity “three to four percent,” according to Scott Kirby, the carrier’s president.

For airlines, higher load factors throughout the year mean a better bottom line. For flyers, they mean that summertime claustrophobia is a year-round ordeal.

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