Passengers wait at Los Angeles International Airport. A long-anticipated… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
Airports will be crowded this summer and empty airline seats rare as Americans take to the skies in numbers that are expected to edge closer to the pre-recession peak.
Nearly 209 million people will fly on U.S.-based airlines this summer, up 1% from a year earlier, according to an estimate released Thursday by Airlines for America, the trade group for the nation's airlines.
That would mark the fourth year in a row that passenger totals have increased, climbing close to the pre-recession total of 210 million in 2008. That's still far off from the all-time high of nearly 218 million in 2007.
With the economy on the rebound in the U.S. and abroad, U.S. carriers are expected to carry 27 million travelers — a record — to international destinations this summer. An expansion at Los Angeles International Airport should be open in time to serve global jet-setters.
The good news for fliers is that fuel prices have remained stable throughout 2012 and for the first few months of 2013, giving airlines little justification to raise fares.
The bad news is that nine of the 11 busiest travel days of the year will be in June through August, and the average plane will be 86% to 87% full throughout the summer.
"The airlines will be operating at flat-out full capacity," said Jami Counter, senior director for flights for the travel website TripAdvisor.com. "From an operational perspective, there will be very little to no slack in the system."
Crowded airports and planes are one reason that Marilyn Fils, a teacher from Tarzana, now drives when she visits family in the Bay Area.
"Flying is not only expensive but incredibly inconvenient, uncomfortable and stressful," she said. "Customer service is nonexistent. Legroom and comfort are now charged as extras or upgrades."
But other travelers have learned to cope with the crowds.
Roland Zimmerman, a doctor from Redlands who plans to travel with his wife through Scandinavia this summer, said he finds the airport screening process to be more stressful than the crowds.
"One nice thing about crowds at the airport is that this gives one the opportunity to talk to fellow travelers," he said.
Crowding shouldn't be a problem at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX because a long-anticipated expansion will nearly double the public area to 2.2 million square feet. Airport officials said they don't have an exact date for the grand opening but expect the project to be ready this summer.
New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C., will be the most popular summer destinations this year, according to a survey of 1,200 U.S. travelers by TripAdvisor.com, which predicted that summer travel — including car trips — will be up 7% over the same time last year.
The Airlines for America forecast did not predict airfares for the summer, but travelers should expect no drastic increases for the next few months as long as fuel prices don't surge, said Counter of TripAdvisor.com. But he predicted that the nation's airlines are likely to take advantage of the growing demand for travel by raising prices on a handful of popular routes.
The airline industry has been rebounding steadily in the last few years and has enjoyed stable fuel prices for the last few months, said John Heimlich, chief economist for Airlines for America.
But the airlines are not completely free of financial pressure to raise fares. More than 7,000 flight were delayed in April because federal budget cuts led to the furlough of air traffic controllers across the country. The delays, Heimlich said, cost the industry millions of dollars.