The summer air-travel season is going full bore, but lurking below the busy surface are fewer options for passengers when flights are canceled.
In a sophisticated version of musical chairs, there are not enough seats to accommodate every passenger when weather or mechanical issues intervene.
“Planes are running so full that they don’t have any spots,” Tulsa resident Anne Green said last week as she waited between flights. “It’s like a domino effect where you can’t get another flight when something goes wrong.”
In late June, Green tried to get to Portland for a half-marathon, only to run into a marathon trying to change planes in Denver. Her flight was canceled because of weather, forcing Green to spend the night in Denver. “Thank goodness, I had a toothbrush in my purse,” Green said.
U.S. airlines cut capacity nearly 9 percent last year, taking planes out of service or using smaller planes on some routes in a scramble to better match the number of seats to customers. That was on top of a 6.7 percent capacity cut in 2008.
The blame for belt-tightening has been placed on the economy, rising fuel prices and fewer passengers, according to the Air Transport Association.
As a result, load factors — the measure of how full planes are — are up. Since 2001, when airlines took a big hit from 9/11, the load factor for U.S. carriers has risen from 69.23 percent to 81.09 percent in 2009.
Involuntary “bumping” — the result of oversold flights — also was up in the first quarter this year — 23,380 instances were reported to the Department of Transportation compared with 17,099 in the first quarter of 2009.
All that adds up to greater chances that passengers may not be rebooked on a flight later the same day, but quite possibly the next day.
“Capacity is generally down and load factors are generally up,” said United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson. “But there is a great deal of thinking about what goes into how you cancel flights and how to inconvenience the least number of people.”
The situation doesn’t look like it will change soon.
Capacity changes are expected to be flat this year, with mild conflicts on whether they will go up or down.
A forecast by the Federal Aviation Administration in March stated that system capacity in available seat miles, or ASMs — a measure for how much capacity airlines have — will decline 1.6 percent this year.
UBS, a global financial services firm, predicted a 1 percent capacity increase this year. Tempered growth could be seen in figures released last week by U.S. airlines.
United reported a 1.1 percent increase in capacity for June over June 2009, and a load factor of 87.9 percent, 2 points higher than June 2009.
Southwest reported 81.9 percent of its seats were filled in June, up 2.4 points from June 2009, and capacity rose 1.9 percent. Southwest expects capacity to remain relatively flat this year, said spokesman Chris Mainz. “It’s too early to tell about next year.”
Behind the scenes of a weather event, the airlines have systems for trying to get ahead of the storm.
Travel waivers can be issued so passengers can rebook at no charge within a specified time, and flights can be selectively canceled to ensure the system continues to flow.
One solution is creative rerouting — putting passengers on a flight that might have an interim stop in another city instead of being a direct, nonstop flight.
Options also may include swapping a smaller aircraft for a larger one to carry more passengers, with cancellations as a last resort.