Commercial air travel has never been as booming as traveler numbers grow each year despite growing competition on many routes, and passenger load factors (PLF) among most of the globe’s airlines were broadly high in 2017.
According to International Air Transport Association (IATA) figures for 2017, the global PLF average climbed 0.9 percentage point to a record calendar-year high of 81.4 per cent against a capacity increase of 6.3 per cent.
The PLF figure has been increasing each year since 2012 after a small dip to 78.1 per cent in 2011 from the 78.3 per cent in 2010, but well above the 2005 level when it was 75.1 per cent and before 2000, when the average was about 70 per cent.
A low PLF can lead to problems for an airline and with more aircraft now in fleets, wider networks, and growing competition it is vital that seats are filled.
But what carriers had the most number of empty seats?
The PLF figure varies across the low, medium and long-haul sectors and many purely low-cost carriers (LCC) are filling their aircraft as the thirst for low cost travel remains high, although having said that the need to fill aircraft is much higher for LCCs whose success is based on full aircraft.
Ryanair had the highest of any carrier at 96 per cent last year, as the Irish no-frills airline continues to pack their aircraft, and add more routes in the process and achieve huge profit margins.
Fellow LCC, Norwegian which was one of the first to start operating low-cost long-haul flights using Boeing Dreamliners had a PLF of 88 per cent in 2017, but despite a high figure it reported a loss for 2017 this week.
Other LCCs also achieved high PLFs last year, such as expanding Budapest-heralding carrier Wizz Air which nearly topped 90 per cent at 89.4 per cent and Jet2’s who had a PLF of 93.2 per cent.
EasyJet was not too far behind at 88.4 per cent for the 12 months from January 2017 to January 2018, while IAG-owned Vueling had a PLF of 84.1 per cent from January to July 2017.
European legacy carriers were all around the same mark with KLM leading the way at 88.4 per cent and its Dutch LCC subsidiary Transavia came in with a PLF of 90.6 per cent. Fellow group airline Air France and its subsidiary HOP, had a combined PLF of 85.7 per cent.
Other European airlines have fared differently in recent times and for 2017 as a whole Brussels Airlines had a PLF of 78.5 per cent, just below Finnair at 83.3 per cent. From November 2017 to January 2017, SAS had a low PLF of 67.2 per cent.
Over in the Americas in 2017, Delta won the PLF battle with 85.6 per cent, beating American Airlines who recorded 82.6 per cent, United Airlines 82.4 per cent and Air Canada for January to September 82.9 per cent. From January to October last year, LATAM Airlines had a PLF of 84.8 per cent.
From April to December last year, British Airways had a PLF of 81.2 per cent and Emirates had 77.2 per cent in the same period, while in 2017 Lufthansa were just above that at 81.6 per cent. Fellow Lufthansa Group airlines SWISS had a PLF of 81.5 per cent in 2017 and Austrian Airlines 76.8 per cent.
Virgin Atlantic will release its PLF figure for 2017 in March, but in 2016 it recorded 78.7 per cent, and it will be hoping to top 80 per cent.
In Asia, Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon combined had a PLF of 84.4 per cent, the same as Singapore Airlines’ figures for April to December last year at 84.4 per cent.
Other carriers PLF figures in 2017 include the ever-growing Turkish Airlines at 79.1 per cent, Aeroflot 82.8 per cent, Air New Zealand (2017) 83.1 per cent and Iberia 83.3 per cent for January to July 2017.
The load factor battle will be as critical as ever in 2018 as more carriers emerge and expand, notably in the Asia Pacific marketplace and demand for low fares is set to continue.
Speaking earlier this month, IATA director general, Alexandre de Juniac said: “While the underlying economic outlook remains supportive in 2018, rising cost inputs, most notably fuel, suggest we are unlikely to see the same degree of demand stimulation from lower fares that occurred in the first part of 2017.”