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Airlines are packing ’em in

Chris Ubinger was walking through Pittsburgh International Airport with business bags one recent morning, girding for a boarding crush of fellow road warriors.

“I haven’t been on a plane in the last three months that wasn’t crowded,” said the business development director for a medical device maker in Alabama.

“Now I almost never get on a flight that wasn’t overbooked,” said Ubinger, a 44-year-old frequent flyer from Ross Township. “From an airline standpoint, it seems like they’re doing a good job of packing the planes.”

Welcome to the new normalcy of commercial aviation. As traffic perks up, planes are packed more tightly — and don’t fly as often, say industry experts.

“Airplanes are fuller because there’s fewer of them. And there’s been a shift in some markets to smaller aircraft with fewer seats,” said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, Radnor.

US Airways, in fact, has eliminated 33 percent — fully one-third — of its Pittsburgh seat capacity since summer 2000.

“Where a plane may have been 70 or more percent full before, now it’s closer to 100 percent,” Mitchell said.

Capacity crunching is hardly unique to US Airways, which is yielding fuller flights. Major carriers’ planes were 82 percent full in July — the most crowded that industry flights have been since the Air Transport Association began collecting such data in 1970.

Airport security lines have eased since Sept. 11, 2001, too, even as air traffic tentatively returns. Pittsburgh International reported more than 80 percent of its long-term parking lots were full last week yet passengers needed less than 10 minutes to pass through security.

“Right after Sept. 11, the lines were bad and security was a hassle,” said Marisa Lattanzi, 21, of Upper St. Clair, after getting her bags scanned.

“Now, there aren’t many lines here or at O’Hare,” said Lattanzi, an industrial engineering and economics major returning to Northwestern University in Chicago.

US Airways and other major carriers are performing a re-balancing act to match supply of service with demand for travel. Since Sept. 11, airlines have reduced flights, fleets and seats.

Prior to Sept. 11, US Airways operated more than 500 daily departures from Pittsburgh International. As of this September, that service had fallen by more than 20 percent, to 396 flights a day. (Pittsburgh also fell behind Charlotte, N.C., as US Airways’ largest hub.)

Airlines measure flight capacity in “available seat miles,” or total seats available times total miles flown. By that yardstick, for instance, US Airways cut its August capacity by 10 percent to 4.62 billion seat miles from year-ago levels.

Mostly by muscling creditors during its seven months in bankruptcy, the Arlington, Va.-based airline reduced its mainline fleet to 279 jets currently from more than 400 before Sept. 11, 2001.

Major U.S. airlines have parked 820 jetliners since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., two years ago, according to the Air Transport Association.

“If you want a direct flight somewhere, there are fewer choices now,” said Ubinger, who was on his way to Chicago for a business meeting.

While recovering, air travel is far from its altitude three years ago. U.S. airlines flew roughly 705 million people when traffic peaked in 2000, said the Federal Aviation Administration. Passengers dropped to about 610 million last year — a nearly 14 percent decline.

Karen Thomas, a senior marketing engineer for Emerson Process Control, Pittsburgh, said her near-weekly flying routine still means allowing more time before flights, just in case.

“You have to be flexible,” said Thomas, 53, of Indiana Township, before boarding a flight for Omaha. “It’s like anything. You learn to adjust.”

The industry also has slashed roughly 102,000 full-time (and another 23,000 part-time) airline jobs since Sept. 11. US Airways shed about 12,000 jobs, including roughly 3,900 in the Pittsburgh area.

Such deep cuts are no panacea for profits. Major carriers lost a combined $8.3 billion in 2001, $11.3 billion last year and are on track to lose another $7.3 billion this year, say analysts.

One gauge of industry profitability is the load factor, or percentage of filled airplane seats. To break even, the industry needed an average load factor of 70.4 percent in 2000 and achieved 72.4 percent, said the Air Transport Association.

But the break-even climbed to 76.7 percent in 2001, when the industry obtained only 70.0 percent. The gap widened last year when the break-even increased to 80.9 percent, but loads were 71.6 percent.

Price pressure from low-fare carriers, such as JetBlue, is making the majors’ rebalancing act even tougher, said the business coalition’s Mitchell. Plus, discounters’ share of the U.S. market has ascended to 25 percent from just 9 percent in 1992, he said.

“If you have 100 seats and you command an average $500 per ticket, you might be able to break even at a 70 percent load factor,” he said “But if you can get only $300, you won’t.”


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