Airline Seat Shortage: Say Goodbye to Cheap Flights

Sounds crazy, but -- could the airlines ever run out of seats?

Sounds crazy, but -- could airlines ever run out of seats? Well, yes, they could. If you think you'll always be able to fly wherever and whenever you like, well -- this article's for you.

Naturally I will begin tackling this ominous subject by talking about children's games. Specifically, musical chairs.

You remember the game: children marching around a circle of chairs to music, but there aren't enough chairs so when the music stops, the odd person is out.

Unfortunately, we're being forced to play musical chairs all over again, only this time, the airlines control the music and the chairs we circle are disappearing passenger seats.

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It was bound to happen. Carriers have been cutting seats by reducing the number of flights they fly for the past few years, in a frantic effort to stay afloat: it's called "cutting capacity" and it's done because flying too many empty seats is a money loser.

Now as demand has waned airlines are prepared to drop even more seats -- tossing them overboard -- crowding us passengers ever closer to a sardine configuration. Bloomberg News cites a parallel from the 1940's: they say what's happening in the airline industry with seat cuts today is the "deepest retrenchment since World War II."

And it could get worse.

It's already pretty bad, though. Ask Dan Thomsen.

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Thomsen, a Hollywood location photographer, says flying in the "old days" was better because you "could stretch out on all those empty seats." Nowadays, he rarely flies -- to be fair, that's partly so he can get a closer look at location possibilities, but it's also to avoid "the hassle of flying" and he proved that this summer by traveling 1,200 miles for a job -- from Los Angeles to Montana -- by car.

For him, the main "hassle" of flying is the overcrowding, and just look at the figures from the government's Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).

These stats, known as "domestic available seat miles" show U.S. airlines this past June with the same available seat miles as a decade earlier in June 1999. Even worse, these numbers don't include the most recent round of seat cutbacks for the fall of 2009 and show a drop of more than 10 percent from their June 2005 highs. Only problem is, the U.S. population has increased during that same time period by 10 percent.

Will airlines add back seats as the economy bounces back? History says yes, but we have seen anything but historical trends lately, so I wouldn't bet on it.

Here's a tip: seat shortages can lead to overbooking, so don't volunteer to be "bumped" from an overbooked flight, unless your airline will guarantee you a seat on the next flight. If they tell you they'll get you out on the next available flight, you could be waiting for long time.

And now, another wrinkle: Did you know that "going green" may cost us seats? That environmental consciousness could result in "flight rationing"?

Not today, not tomorrow but maybe sooner than you think. Consider that the British Parliament Committee on Climate Change (CCC) said it expects air travel will double by the mid-century and if global warming is to be avoided (so the thinking goes), something must be done.

How? A cap, for starters. The CCC is calling for a cap on global aviation emissions at half the 2005 levels, by the year 2050.

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