Travel

CHRISTOPHER MUTHER

As passenger rates increase, empty airline seats are becoming a rare and beautiful thing of the past

A man stretches out across empty airplane seats. As the number of passengers increases on flights, it's becoming rarer for passengers to wind up with an empty seat next to them, or better yet, their own row.
Air Asia
A man stretched out across empty airplane seats. As the number of passengers increases on flights, it's becoming rarer for passengers to wind up with an empty seat next to them, or better yet, their own row.

I stepped onto the plane, scanned the aisle up and down, and nearly dropped to my knees with a tear in my eye.

I had boarded an aviation unicorn.

It was a JetBlue flight from Mexico City to Boston and the plane was more than half empty. I take that back, it was two-thirds empty.

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“Looks like you’re all alone back here,” a dashing flight attendant said with a smile as he walked past me and my solitary surroundings.

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Perhaps the unicorn analogy is a bit much, but when was the last time you were on a commercial A320 jet where you could claim the entire back third of the plane as your own? I can tell you, because according to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, it’s as rare as finding a decent seasonal table runner at HomeGoods.

According to the BTS, the passenger occupancy rate on flights has spiked dramatically. About 70 percent of seats were full on flights in 2002 (the earliest year the figures are available). So far in 2018, the number of occupied seats — also known as the load factor — is a solid 85 percent.

On American Airlines, the load factor is 86 percent, on United it’s nearly 87 percent, and on Hawaiian Airlines the flights are 87 percent full.

These rates have risen partially because more people are flying. In 2002, more than 550 million people flew domestically. In 2017, that number rocketed to just over 740 million.

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So if you think your flight is more crowded now than it was 15 years ago, you’re correct.

Therefore, when you find yourself on a flight with an aisle or two to yourself — or even just a vacant adjoining seat — it’s important to bathe in every blessed Joan Collins-esque moment of the luxury. That knot in your chest slips away when you look up and see that no one is bounding down the aisle to sit in the seat next to you. It’s a gift when you realize the back of your seat is perfectly still because no one is kicking it and you can actually rest your arm on the armrest rather than elbow wrestle.

Where I’m from, we call this white trash first class.

Flight crews gives a safety demonstration to a near-empty fight from Mexico City to Boston earlier this month. As the number of passengers increases, empty seats on flights are becoming rarer.
Christopher Muther/GLOBE STAFF
Flight crews gives a safety demonstration to a near-empty fight from Mexico City to Boston earlier this month. As the number of passengers increases, empty seats on flights are becoming rarer.

Allow me one more, because this is a biggie: No one is obnoxiously reclining their seat into your face. Or, if you’re one of those people who reclines with no regard for humanity, you can recline without shame. Of course, if you’re one of those people you’re going to recline without shame anyway, aren’t you?

Apologies if I’m coming off gushier than a proud granny at a kindergarten graduation ceremony, but it was on that empty flight from Mexico City to Boston when I furiously pounded out these words of joy. I stopped briefly when a flight attendant, this time a woman with chunky highlights and kind eyes, came by with the snack tray to offer me all the Terra Chips I could wrap my sweaty little mitts around. The two of us were beaming like a pair of halogen headlights as we realized the thrill of this beautiful and rare moment.

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This isn’t the first time I’ve started writing an “I practically have the entire plane to myself and it’s glorious” story. But when I’ve tried writing them in the past, I usually dozed off and left them unfinished. Lucky for you, I’ve excavated two previous examples.

The first was an afternoon Icelandair flight from Reykjavik to Boston. I looked down at the snowy mountains of Greenland while sprawled out in my own row of seats under a cozy blanket. I wrote some syrupy balderdash comparing the hills to “majestic piles of marshmallows that nearly touched the clouds.” Looking back I’d say that sentence was a majestic pile, only it wasn’t a pile of marshmallows.

On a flight to San Francisco a few years ago I had a few seats to myself as the plane sailed toward the sunset. I started writing another ode to empty seats. “The sun moved through the windows and flickered warmly in my face. It was like honey in my eyes,” the half-finished story read. Looking back at this sickly sweet literary jar of mango marmalade, I’m beginning to understand why I abandoned these stories.

But let’s get back to what’s important, and I’m not referring to that handsome flight attendant who returned to offer me another can of Diet Coke (don’t mind if I do!).

As much as we complain about air travel, there are moments of joy that are unappreciated, especially when the load factor drops below 30 percent and empty seats are as common as fleece vests on casual Friday. It’s important to go full Joni Mitchell at these times. Marvel at clouds. Put down your iPad and gawk at a countryside that resembles a neatly assembled quilt of verdant greens and soft browns, the kind that you would find for sale at a church fair.

Also much appreciated? Not having to hear the blasted announcement “Ladies and gentlemen, this flight is full. We need you to store your carry-ons as quickly as possible to clear the aisles for an on-time departure.”

Grab these little luxuries where you can, my friends, tuck them into the empty recesses of your brain, and remember them fondly for the next flight when the seat kicker, the recliner, and the armrest hog have all returned in force.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and on Instagram @Chris_Muther.