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US airline troubles in 2009 shown by latest BTS data


It’s official, last year was a very difficult one for US carriers. Given the impact of the recession, it was to no one’s surprise that the number of domestic and international passengers handled by scheduled airlines last year declined 5.3% from 2008, dropping to 769.6 million, according to the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).

Pacing that were US airlines which carried 5.3% fewer total system passengers in 2009 and 5.2% fewer domestic passengers. International passengers for US airlines declined 6.3% from the year-ago period, while those flying foreign carriers dropped only 4.8%. US airlines carried 56.6% of the international passengers in 2009, down from 57.1% in 2008.

US airlines and foreign airlines carried 151.5 million scheduled international passengers in 2009, down 5.6% from 2008. The passengers were carried on 1.27 million flights, down 6.5% from the 1.36 million flights operated in 2008. US and foreign airlines operated 623,640 flights into the United States from foreign airports and 624,771 flights from U.S. airports to foreign destinations. US airlines operated an additional 23,489 foreign-to-foreign flights.

The number of total passengers flown on US and foreign carriers declined in 10 of the 12 months in 2009 with the largest drop – 12.4% – in Feburary. During the first six months of 2009, the number of passengers declined 9.0% from the same period in 2008.  During the last six months, the decline was 1.4%.

Southwest again tops the list

Southwest Airlines carried more total system passengers in 2009 than any other US airline for the third consecutive year, while American topped the list for the most international passengers last year, for the 20th consecutive year.

Atlanta maintains its position

Atlanta Hartsfield was the top US airport last year for total system passengers, with Kennedy International served more international passengers than any other US airport. Atlanta was the world's busiest again in 2009, but it could be overtaken by Beijing as early as 2012, if recent growth rates are maintained. See related report: Beijing Capital – Now the third largest airport in the world

Flights fall 6.6%

US carriers and foreign carriers serving the US operated 10.0 million domestic and international flights in 2009, 6.6% fewer than operated in 2008.

Other highlights of the BTS report included:

  • Revenue passenger-miles (RPMs) were down 4.8 percent in 2009. 
  • Available seat-miles (ASMs) were down 5.4 percent in 2009. 
  • Passenger load factor was up 0.5 load factor points at 79.1 percent in 2009. 
  • Flight stage length, the average non-stop distance flown per departure, was unchanged in 2009.
  • Passenger trip length, the average distance flown per passenger, was up 0.5 percent in 2009. 
  • Among airlines, Southwest carried 101.3 million passengers on its system in 2009, the most of any airline.
  • Among airports, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson was the busiest U.S. airport in 2009, with 42.1 million domestic and international passenger boardings. 

International passengers on US airlines and on foreign airlines to and from the US declined in all months of 2009 from the same month in 2008, except in December. The largest decline of 13.4 percent took place in the month of May.

  • International revenue passenger-miles (RPMs), a measure of the number of passengers and the distance flown, were down 4.4 percent in 2009. 
  • International available seat-miles (ASMs), a measure of airline capacity using the number of seats and the distance flown, were down 4.0 percent in 2009. 
  • International passenger load factor, passenger miles as a proportion of available seat-miles, was down 0.3 load factor points to 77.1 percent in 2009. 
  • International flight stage length, the average non-stop distance flown per departure, was up 1.2 percent in 2009. 
  • International passenger trip length, the average distance flown per passenger, was up 1.3 percent in 2009. 
  • American carried 19.6 million international passengers in 2009, the most of any airline serving the United States (Table 7).
  • New York JFK was the busiest U.S. airport for international travel in 2009, with 10.7 million international passenger boardings .

Table 1: Scheduled Domestic and International Airline Travel on U.S. and Foreign Airlines*





Change %

Passengers (in millions)




Flights (in thousands)




Revenue Passenger Miles (in billions)




Available Seat-Miles (in billions)




Load Factor**




Flight Stage Length***




Passenger Trip Length****




Table 1A.  Passengers on U.S. Carriers and on Foreign Carriers' U.S. Flights 2008-2009

Passenger numbers in millions (000,000)




Change %

U.S. Carrier














Foreign Carrier


To and From U.S.








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