Domestic flights are as full as they were before the pandemic
17 November 2022
by Michael Sivak, Sivak Applied Research
Travel by air plummeted at the start of the pandemic in early 2020 (as did travel by other modes of transportation). There has been, however, a gradual rebound since then. In terms of revenue passenger miles (for domestic flights) the lowest point was reached in April 2020 (down 96% from April 2019). August travel data (the latest available) show that, compared with August 2019 data, there has been a decline of 8% (all corrected for population).
This post examines the effect of the pandemic on the utilization of aircraft capacity on domestic flights. (The airlines can mitigate the consequences of the decline in passengers’ demand by reducing flight schedules and by using smaller aircraft.) A variable that evaluates the utilization of aircraft passenger capacity is called passenger load factor (load factor from now on) which compares revenue passenger miles as a percentage of available seat miles. Indeed, the raw variable used in this analysis was the load factor for scheduled domestic flights. The source of the data was the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
The table below lists the load factor for each month from January 2019 through August 2022. The lowest value—13.8%—was reached in April 2020. Thereafter, the load factor has gradually increased, reaching a high of 89.1% in June 2022.
The calculated changes in load-factor values for each month in 2020 through 2022, compared with the same month in 2019, are shown in the table below. A negative value is a percentage reduction in load factor, and vice versa.
|Month||2020 minus 2019||2021 minus 2019||2022 minus 2019|
The results indicate that the biggest drop in load factor was near the start of the pandemic in April 2020. During that month, load factor dropped by 70.8% compared with April 2019 (13.8% minus 84.6% is equal to –70.8%).
Thereafter, the reduction in load factor started to decrease, but it took two years to bring load factor back to approximately where it was in 2019. Specifically, by April 2022, load factor was on par with April 2019, and this approximate parity continued through the summer of 2022. In other words, since the spring of this year, domestic flights are as full as they were just prior to the pandemic.
Michael Sivak is the managing director of Sivak Applied Research and the former director of Sustainable Worldwide Transportation at the University of Michigan.
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