By Travel writer contributor
updated 3/10/2009 10:08:04 AM ET 2009-03-10T14:08:04

A funny thing happened on my 6 a.m. flight from Seattle to Las Vegas last week.

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We left early.

I don’t know, maybe it was the time of day (as in ungodly early); maybe the time of year (midway between the holiday and summer travel seasons). Or maybe it was a sign of the times. As we rolled down the runway, I found myself wondering: Was our 10-minute-ahead-of-schedule departure a happy anomaly or an early indicator of what’s to come?

I realize, of course, that one flight does not a travel trend make and that there are other issues at work. Nevertheless, evidence is building that a smaller airline industry is a saner airline industry and that the combination of fewer planes and fewer passengers could add up to a more pleasant flying experience.

In the meantime, the Department of Transportation (DOT) will release its 2008 year-end passenger data any day now, and it’s all but certain that last year’s numbers will set the tone for the months ahead.

Empty seats, uncertain future
While the DOT figures are still forthcoming, the airlines are already reporting discouraging numbers for early 2009. This is always a slow period for air travel, but this year, the so-called “dead week” after the holiday season is turning into the “dead several months.”

Last week, the major U.S. airlines reported their February operating results, posting numbers that were almost universally dismal. During the month, the nation’s top 10 airlines (counting Delta and Northwest separately for year-to-year consistency’s sake) carried 45 million passengers, a drop of 12 percent from the year before. Despite continuing cuts in capacity, the average load factor — the percentage of seats filled by paying passengers — fell two points last month to 73.6 percent.

The load was even lighter on my flight — about 58 percent, according to my stroll-the-aisle arithmetic — which, I have to admit, made for some wonderfully ample elbow room. Only a handful of the three-seat rows were full, and at least 15 people, myself included, had all three seats to themselves. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened.

On the other hand, with approximately 90 passengers on a 157-seat plane and a roundtrip fare of $189, it’s hard to see how the flight could generate enough revenue to make a reasonable profit. And these days, if a flight isn’t profitable, it probably won’t stay on the schedule for long. In the end, near-half-empty flights don’t do anyone any good at all.

The past as prologue
As for those year-end numbers, it looks like U.S. airlines will end up carrying around 745 million to 750 million passengers (individual enplanements) in 2008, a drop of 2.5 percent to 3 percent from the 769 million they tallied in 2007. That’s on a par with the total for 2006 and represents the first annual drop since 2002, when travel plummeted in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Given the deepening recession, further declines are likely for 2009. According to projections developed by Colorado-based consultants Boyd Group International, U.S. carriers could tally 699 million enplanements this year, a drop of 6.7 percent from last year and off almost 10 percent from 2007.

About 700 million — roughly the same number of passengers U.S. airlines carried in 2004. And while no one would suggest that 2004 represented a golden age in air travel (the industry lost more than $7 billion that year), it can be argued that, compared to the years since, flying was a relatively pleasant experience.

Now, admittedly, I’m no statistician, but it does seem that the system has been suffering some serious growing pains over the last five years, much of which has been passed on to the traveling public. Now that the system is shrinking again, it appears the pain — at least in terms of the flying experience itself — may be easing.

What does that mean for 2009? Well, if my recent trip was any indication, the potential benefits are many: shorter lines at security, faster boarding at the gate, more space in the overhead bins, less feeling like a sardine and, consequently, a reasonable chance of arriving on time. Wouldn’t that be nice? Slideshow: Awful airlines

On the other hand, given the larger economic picture, there’s a serious downside risk. The less people travel, the more the airlines will cut capacity, which means the balancing act between supply and demand is looking more and more like a big game of chicken. No one really knows at what level the two factors will find equilibrium — or what it will cost in terms of fares, flight schedules and the fate of individual airlines.

In the meantime, you might as well enjoy the ride while you can.

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