If you're flying for the first time in a while, brace yourself. The squeeze is on.
Don't expect to sit beside an empty seat. Your odds are only slightly better than getting a complimentary meal. Planning to stash that roller bag in the overhead bin? Better not be at the end of the boarding line.
And that's the good news. If a winter storm blows in or the plane breaks down, you could wait a long, long time before the airline finds you another seat home.
Planes are more crowded today than any time since It's a Wonderful Life was a new release at the movies. U.S. airlines on average flew with 77.4 percent of their seats full during the first 11 months of 2005, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Factor in all the lightly traveled, late-night flights that airlines make to position planes for the next day's trips, and that means most planes flying during regular hours are full or close to it.
The percentage of occupied seats, or "load factor" in airline lingo, has been inching up for years. But the pace picked up recently as ailing airlines cut capacity (or went belly up in the case of Independence Air) and demand for air travel increased.
Just look at two big carriers that filed for bankruptcy Sept. 14, Delta and Northwest.
Next month, Delta's full-service brand will make 13 daily departures from Tampa International, five fewer than in March 2005, with 33 percent fewer seats. Northwest will be down three flights, to 15, with 17 percent fewer seats. Combined capacity of all carriers at Tampa International will decrease nearly 5 percent from last March.
Filling more seats with customers is good business for airlines. But it can be a nightmare for travelers, especially business fliers trying to get work done.
"It certainly diminishes comfort," says Stuart Klaskin, an airline consultant in Coral Gables who says he takes about 100 flights a year. "You're spending more time in the airport, more time getting on and off planes, you're fighting for bin space and elbow space."
Jostling with fellow passengers for room in overhead bins is "the new battleground," says David Cox, national sales manager for a glass tile manufacturer in Tampa.
"You can't fly into Florida now without the plane being maxed out." he says. "And if you're late you're not going to have (overhead bin) space.
Cox has a leg up on the typical flier. As a US Airways top-level Chairman's Preferred customer, he's offered early boarding and a guaranteed spot to stash his garment bag.
But it's more than an annoyance when an airline cancels flights, then can't get passengers out on later flights that are heavily booked.
Remember the torrential rain on Feb. 3 that kept planes grounded at Tampa International and caused cancellations of inbound flights? Cox was coming home through Philadelphia the next day. US Airways was still trying to find to seats for Tampa customers who'd been waiting for 24 hours, he said.
US Airways has made technology and staffing improvements to rebook customers more efficiently when things go wrong, says Scott Kirby, executive vice president of marketing and sales. But when planes are so full "it takes away some of our slack," he says.
A footnote: The year It's a Wonderful Life came out was 1946, when airline load factors also were 77.4 percent. No wonder George Bailey's brother Harry had to fly himself to Bedford Falls for the party.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.