Pick a random weekday in February, and you can find a seat on any of roughly 125 nonstop flights from one of the two major Chicago-area airports to one of the three large ones in New York.
But if you were planning on flying this week, you’d better hope that you’ve already booked your tickets. As of just after midnight on Tuesday morning, just 3 of these 125 non-stops showed any availability on Tuesday, according to searches at Kayak.com and Southwest.com. No nonstop flights of any kind — and only a handful of indirect routings — had seats remaining for Wednesday. Thursday wasn’t much better: only 6 flights were still available, and none were cheaper than $935 for one-way travel.
By Friday, finally, things should start to clear up a bit: nearly 40 flights from Chicago still had seats available as of early Monday morning — although some might require you to miss your New Year’s Eve party.
It isn’t any secret what happened: the winter storm that left 20 inches of snow over some parts of New York shut down Newark, J.F.K. and La Guardia Airports for a period of about 26 hours between Sunday and Monday. La Guardia — which typically processes about 450 arriving flights on a weekend and 550 on a weekday — managed to handle only about 130 on Sunday before the weather shut it down, according to statistics compiled from flightaware.com. And only about a dozen managed to arrive yesterday even after it was opened up to traffic again.
That means in excess of 800 flights were canceled into La Guardia alone, affecting about 60,000 passengers, given the types of aircraft that typically fly into the airport (the average flight into La Guardia carries about 75 people). Newark and J.F.K. handle roughly as many domestic passengers, putting the overall number of stranded New Yorkers safely into the six digits.
A few of those passengers might have found other means to get home — not just planes, but also trains and automobiles serve New York, after all. Most of them, however, will have been re-booked by their air carriers — and re-booking a day-and-a-half’s worth of passengers can suck up all of the excess capacity into New York’s airports for the better part of a week.
That is because, in addition to this being one of the busiest travel periods of the year, the airlines are running at record levels of capacity. Through the first nine months of the year, load factors on domestic flights — essentially the percentage of available seats that they filled — ran at 82 percent, the highest figure since the Department of Transportation began tracking the statistic.
These load factors have been rising steadily. A decade ago, they were closer to 70 percent, which permitted quite a bit more slack in the event of cancellations. At a 70 percent load factor, there are 2.3 passengers for every available seat, which means, roughly speaking, that one day’s worth of cancellations might take two days to clear through the system.
At an 82 percent load factor, on the other hand, there are 4.6 passengers for every seat — roughly twice as many — so one day’s worth of cancellations might require four or five days to get everyone home.
The airlines love high load factors, which have a very strong relationship with their profitability (it’s hard to make money on an empty seat). Almost all of the major U.S. carriers have been running with load factors in excess of 80 percent on their domestic flights for the past few years (Southwest, which has load factors in the mid-70s, has been a modest exception). There are now almost 15 percent fewer flights taking off than at the peak in 2005, even though there are only slightly fewer travelers.
For passengers, however, they are at best a mixed blessing. Fewer flights means less strain on the air traffic control system, and so on-time percentages have improved slightly. Higher load factors also make air transit slightly more carbon-friendly.
Particularly outside of major travel hubs like New York, however, they also mean fewer choices for when and how to fly. And more crowded flights also mean less room in the overhead bin, and more chance that you’ll get stuck with a dreaded middle seat — if you’re fortunate enough to get on the flight at all.