WASHINGTON – U.S. airlines carried a record number of 823 million passengers last year, the Transportation Department announced Thursday.
The record was anticipated because of continuous growth since the recession, when the total number of passengers dipped to 704 million in 2009, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
But the record — the first time U.S. airlines have carried more than 800 million passengers in one year —represented 3.1% growth from 798 million in 2015, according to the bureau.
The total included 719 million domestic passengers and 104 million international passengers, according to the bureau.
The number of available seat miles also set a record, totaling 1.119 trillion last year, a 3.9% gain from the year before, which has also continued to grow after the 2009 lull.
Despite more seats being available, the gains coincided with an average of 83.4% of seats being full, meaning planes were flying nearly as packed as they ever have. There were a few more seats last year than when the load factor peaked in 2015 at 83.8%.
The figures confirmed what passengers have noticed, which is that average planes have become more full, from a 73.5% load factor in 2003, according to the bureau.
“We not only set a new all-time high beating last year, but eclipsed it by a healthy margin,” said John Heimlich, chief economist for the trade group Airlines for America, which represents most of the large carriers. “We’ve had two consecutive years of fairly significant airfare declines, and a couple of consecutive years of record capital expenditures putting money back into the product.”
The record number of passengers arrived as airlines improved their performance to the best levels in decades, with the fewest canceled flights, the fewest bumps when planes were oversold and the least mishandled bags, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Airlines canceled 1.17% of their domestic flights last year, which improved on the 1.5% rate in 2015, according to the Air Travel Consumer Report. The previous low had been 1.24% in 2002.
In addition, airlines mishandled 2.7 bags for every 1,000 passengers last year, which was the lowest rate since the department began keeping track in 1987. The rate compared to 3.13 in 2015. The previous low was 3.09 in 2012.
Airlines bumped 0.62 out of each 10,000 passengers last year, which was the lowest rate among data dating to 1995, according to the report. That rate represented an improvement from the 0.73 in 2015 and beat the previous low of 0.72 in 2002.
Fares have also dropped in the last two years. Fares including ancillary fees, but without taxes, averaged $399.11 in 2014, according to the Transportation Department. The figure dropped to $386.11 in 2015 and $371.79 during the first half of last year.
Can airlines top the performance this year?
Leap year added a slight advantage last year, when an average 2.25 million passengers flew each day. But Heimlich noted that airlines continue to invest in aircraft, entertainment, ground equipment, baggage handling and terminals, with $17.5 billion spent last year.
The Transportation Security Administration is trying to sign up more participants in Precheck expedited screening. American, Delta and United airlines have each begun to offer free meals on longer flights. And Alaska and United airlines recently announced new routes.
“I think there are a number of things, as the industry’s financial health continues to improve, that accrue right back to the customer," Heimlich said.