Airlines pack in passengers at a record rate in 2012

Passengers sit in their assigned seats before take-off at San Diego's Lindburgh Field Airport in San Diego, California.
(Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images)

If you find an empty seat next to you on your next flight, consider yourself very lucky.

The nation’s airlines set a new record last year for the percentage of seats filled on commercial flights, with an overall average rate of 82.8%, up from 82% in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The rate for filled seats--known as the passenger load factor--has been on the rise for several years as airlines cut seat capacity while demand has risen steadily.

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For the year, U.S. airlines carried 0.8% more total passengers--736.6 million--than during 2011, according to the federal agency.

With more competition for seats, airlines have also been able to increase fares gradually since the end of the economic recession.

In 2011, domestic fares rose by an average of 8.3% over the previous year and increased another 3.1% in the first nine months of 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

For the third consecutive year, Delta Air Lines carried the most passengers of any airline--116.4 million-- in 2012, a 2.6% increase over the previous year. Southwest Airlines was the second largest carrier with 112.2 million passengers, a 1.5% increase from 2011, according the Department of Transportation.


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