Are Flights Always Full? Here’s The Data

Flights always seem to be packed to the brim, leaving you little chance to swap seats if the one you’ve been assigned isn’t cutting it. Understandably, this can be quite frustrating but are these flights actually always full?

Flights aren’t always full, but most airlines aim to fly at 80% capacity or higher to cover expenses and meet profit margins. The number of flight reservations will vary based on the flight’s destination and availability, as well as the day of the week. 

The last thing you want to experience while traveling is a delay due to an overbooked flight. This article provides ways to determine if your flight is full, what you can expect if it is, and how to handle the problem.

Are Flights Always Full?

Airlines typically run at an 80% capacity minimum to cover costs and meet profit margins. These flights can be full or empty for many reasons, but outside of extreme circumstances like a global pandemic, the main determinant is flight time.

Typically, holiday periods like Christmas and Thanksgiving always see full flights, especially internationally. Locally, rush hour flights are usually the fullest, with the busiest days overall being Mondays and Fridays. During the midweek, you’re far more likely to find planes below capacity.

How Do I Know How Full Is My Flight?

To know how full your flight is, you’ll want to call the airline directly. Although they’re unlikely to tell you exactly how many available seats there are, you might get a general idea of ticket availability. 

While there are methods you can use to get a sense of how full a flight is getting as the departure date approaches, there’s no standardized, foolproof method to get an exact number or percentage. This information is usually only privy to the airline. 

Most methods, outside of the airline simply telling you, are usually speculative. Still, they can sometimes give you a rough idea of what to expect. 

Let’s look at a few methods to give you a good idea of the flight’s capacity.

Flight Seat Map

Online check-in gives you the option of choosing your seat, and most airline websites will provide a seat map for you to do this. The number of available seats can be a good indicator of how full your flight is.

However, this isn’t always accurate, as not all passengers utilize pre-check-in. Some who do may opt not to select a seat.

Airline Upgrade List

Upgrading your seat online can give you an idea of the number of premium seats still available on the flight. However, note that this will limit your booking information to First and Business Class only, and even then, not all airlines will provide this information.

How Do You Tell if a Flight Is Overbooked?

To determine if your flight is overbooked, contact the airline. However, this doesn’t always guarantee that you’ll get a correct answer, as boarding information isn’t always accessible to customer service.

Still, there are also a few indirect ways that can give an indication of how full your flight is. Similar to figuring out how full your flight is, these methods are purely speculative and won’t always give you a reliable estimate.

One common indicator of a full flight is an airline offering deals on seat upgrades. Remember that a full cabin doesn’t always equate to a full plane. So, a flight’s economy class seats might be sold out or even overbooked while the business or first class cabins have free seats.

When this happens, many airlines might offer discounts on seat upgrades to reduce the population in a cabin and solve overbooking. While this definitely won’t always be the case, it can be a decent indicator that a particular cabin is getting full.

My Virgin Atlantic Flight 2022
My Virgin Atlantic Flight 2022

What Happens If Your Flight Is Full?

If your flight is full, the airline will ask passengers to give up their seats voluntarily. If this fails, they will forcibly deny entry to some passengers. This usually allows you to claim compensation provided that certain conditions are met.

Most airlines will ask for volunteers willing to give up their seats, usually offering incentives for willing passengers. These incentives vary widely between airlines and can sometimes be quite large. 

A few examples are:

  • Free or discounted tickets
  • Hotel stays
  • Free meals, 
  • Transport to and from the airport.

If there are no volunteers, airline staff choose people to be removed. The US Department of Transportation provides specific compensation percentages for this, as the amount you can claim varies and depends on the length of the delay, type of flight, and ticket cost.

Can I Buy 3 Seats on a Plane?

You can buy 3 seats on a plane, although this policy may vary with each airline. Most airlines will allow at least two seats per person, while some go up to three. Airline rules usually require you to purchase all seats under the same booking at the same rate.

Passengers may want to purchase two or three seats for themselves for different reasons, such as size and comfort, or to carry extra items like musical instruments. 

You’ll still maintain a single-passenger baggage allowance even though you’ve paid for multiple seats. Remember that these seats are all under one ticket, and baggage allowance is assigned to ticket holders, not seats.

The possibility of multiple bookings can sometimes be limited by seat availability and might also require that you make your booking directly through the airline rather than a third party.


Flights aren’t always completely full, but they usually fly close to full capacity. There’s almost no way to know if your flight is completely filled beforehand, as even booked seats can sometimes be left unused due to no-shows.

Still, overbooked flights do happen, and airlines have to manage it as best as they can. Typically, they’ll offer incentives for people to give up their seats voluntarily, and if this doesn’t work, people are chosen to be removed.

Thankfully, you can claim compensation for this, provided certain conditions are met.