Passengers on U.S. airlines this summer will stand a good chance of finding the seat next to them occupied.
The industry group Airlines for America, or A4A, released its summer travel forecast Wednesday.
"We are projecting slightly fuller flights driven in part by a record number of international travelers," A4A Vice President and Chief Economist John Heimlich predicted in a conference call with reporters. "Over the course of the summer, we expect 206.2 million passengers to travel globally on U.S. airlines."
In terms of the number of passengers, the prediction for June 1 to August 31 is comparable to last year, and about 5% below the 2007 peak of 217.6 million, according to the group.
But load factors, or the percentage of the seats that are full, should be slightly higher than last year, Heimlich said. In 2011, the average ranged from 85% to 87% full.
Fewer empty economy seats this summer could make it harder for some passengers to get rebooked if their travel plans are disrupted by weather or other factors, but Tom Hendricks, A4A senior vice president of safety, security and operations, says, "Our members have refined their operations over the years to ensure they are able to accommodate as many passengers as possible during summer disruptions."
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As for the price of tickets, A4A's analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation fare data shows average airfares, including extra charges and fees, have gone up from $317 to $364 since 2000.
The industry group notes that the 15% increase is about half the rate of inflation measured by the Consumer Price Index, a leading tally of many goods people buy.
U.S. airlines continue to struggle economically, according to the report. A4A says during the first quarter of this year Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest/AirTran, Spirit, United and US Airways have lost a combined $1.73 billion, up from $1 billion in the first quarter of 2011.
One of the biggest factors is the high price of jet fuel, which amounts to about a third of operating expenses, it says.