These Airlines Had the Most Empty Middle Seats in 2016

Jan 12, 2017

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(Almost) no one likes being stuck in the middle seat. And, if you’re traveling with family or a significant other, having an empty middle seat between you can be an ever-so-sweet victory.

Over the past few days, American Airlines, United, Southwest, Delta and JetBlue have been reporting their full-year 2016 traffic results. While many of these reports might be a bore for the average traveler, one aspect is especially interesting to see: load factors, a measurement of just how full the airlines’ flights were in a given period. While we don’t get flight- or route-specific data, airline load factors can give you an idea of how packed an airline’s planes are in general.

So, let’s dig into the numbers:

 Airline  2016 Load  2015 Load  Change % Chance of Getting an
Empty Middle Seat
(in a three-seat row)
 American Airlines 81.7% 83.0% -1.3% 54.9%
 United 82.9% 83.4% -0.5% 51.3%
 Southwest 84.0% 83.6% 0.4% 48.0%
 Delta 84.6% 84.9% -0.3% 46.2%
 JetBlue 85.1% 84.7% 0.4% 44.7%

If you’re looking for less-full flights, American Airlines is the way to go since the carrier ended up last among the top five US carriers in every released metric: Overall, Regional, Mainline, Domestic and International. While the difference between 81.7% and 85.1% doesn’t seem to be that big, when you consider how many flights these airlines are operating, that’s a lot of empty middle seats!

When it comes to regional flights, American Airlines flights were even emptier. During 2016, the airline’s regional flights were just 77.2% full on average. Unfortunately, these are the aircraft were there are rarely any middle seats anyway. But, on four-across planes, it means you had almost a 50/50 chance of having a whole mini-row to yourself. Meanwhile, your chances were much lower on United’s regional flights, which were 83.5% full in 2016, on average. For international flights, AA’s averaged out at just 78% full, while Delta filled the most seats, averaging 83.4% load.

Bottom Line

While you can employ some desperate measures in an effort to get an empty seat next to you on Southwest, there’s no guaranteed way of making sure you’ll end up with an empty middle seat. However, little hacks like flying during off-peak times and on generally-emptier carriers — like American Airlines — will help increase your chances.

Are there any routes you’ve flown that are always empty (or full)? Tell us about them, below.

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