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Good Question: How Crowded Are Airplanes?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) - A new study out of Wichita State University finds people's experience with commercial airline travel is getting worse. The study of major airline performance shows more flights are late, more bags are getting lost and the number of people packed on planes is at an all-time high.

So, how crowded are our flights? Good Question.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 70 percent of seats were filled in 2002. It jumped to 80 percent in 2008 and by 2014, what airlines call "load factor" was up to 84 percent. Delta Airlines' load factor is slightly higher at 87 percent.

"What it comes down to is that there is almost no such thing as a low season anymore," said Seth Kaplan, editor of Airline Weekly. "Now, airlines just bury their capacity. They fly more when people want to fly and fly less when fewer people want to fly."

There are 11 percent more passengers, but 15 percent fewer flights compared with ten years ago. After bankruptcies and mergers, Kaplan said the industry is less competitive than it used to be.

"It used to be you had choices of countless airlines out there, and now it's kind of like everything else," he said. "You have three or four cell phone companies, one cable company and a couple of satellite dish companies."

Kaplan said airlines are, on average, using larger planes and adding more seats to those planes in a process called densification.

In a CBS/Associated Press story about airline seats, Keith Hansen, director of government affairs for budget carrier Allegiant Air, said, "The only way we can offer a low airfare ... is to increase the seating density so we can divide the cost of operating a flight among the greatest number of people possible."

According to Airlines for America, the trade group for the airline industry, the average inflation-adjusted cost of a domestic round-trip ticket has fallen 40 percent from 1979 to 2013.

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