The government says the number of people traveling within, to or from the United States on U.S. and foreign airlines fell by 5.3 percent last year, but fewer flights meant planes were more full.
Southwest Airlines carried more passengers in the U.S. than any other airline for the third straight year.
The Department of Transportation said Monday that preliminary data shows there were 769.6 million passengers last year.
The agency said U.S. airlines carried 5.2 percent fewer domestic passengers and 6.3 percent fewer international passengers than in 2008. There was a 4.8 percent drop in people traveling to or from the U.S. on foreign carriers.
By miles flown, traffic fell 4.8 percent, and airlines cut capacity 5.4 percent by reducing flights or using smaller planes. Airlines cut U.S. flights 6.6 percent, to 10 million.
With capacity falling more sharply than traffic, the average plane was 79.1 percent full last year, up from 78.6 percent in 2008.
The passenger count fell in 10 of 12 months last year compared with the same month in 2008, as recession took its toll on both business and leisure travel.
The largest monthly decline was 12.4 percent in February. After dropping 9 percent in the first six months of the year, the passenger count declined just 1.4 percent in the second half of the year.
Southwest carried 101.3 million. Delta and Northwest between them carried more than 118 million. They are now counted as a single airline since Delta bought Northwest.
American Airlines carried the most international passengers to and from the U.S.
The DOT said Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International was the nation’s busiest airport in 2009.