If you’ve done enough flying then you have probably found yourself in the following situation.
You hear flight attendants announce over the PA system that “the flight is full” and then you hear the same thing as you begin to board the plane and find your seat.
But then as you get situated in your seat you notice around the time of takeoff that there are some open seats throughout the cabin.
So what exactly did these flight attendants mean when they said the flight was “full?” Were they misinformed or are they actively lying to passengers about the occupancy rates of flights?
In this article, we will take a look.
What do airlines mean when they say a flight is full?
When a flight attendant or gate agent announces that a flight is full, they do not always mean that every seat will be occupied. Instead, it could just mean that the flight is nearly full and they could be making the “flight is full” announcement to help expedite the boarding process or because of various other reasons.
I’ll explain why that is the case below.
Why do airlines announce a flight is full if it really is not full?
There are a few reasons why a gate agent or crew member would announce that a flight is full when it really is not.
It’s possible that your flight was actually sold out or even oversold but that some people were simply no-shows for the flight.
Some airlines allow passengers to cancel flights as soon as 10 minutes before the flight and so they will not always be able to predict who will not show up. If they don’t have other people making last minute changes or on standby then those seats could remain empty for the flight.
So sometimes these announcements are made in good faith and are accurate at the time of the announcement but things just change.
A flight crew will often hold the door open for people who are trying to connect from a late connecting flight but they can only hold up operations for so long.
If that flight is very late then lots of connecting passengers may miss the flight and that might be why your flight is not as full as the flight attendants made it out to be.
Sometimes a crew knows that the flight is not going to be 100% full but it will still have a high occupancy rate.
In these cases, they may announce the flight is full because they may want to avoid having people check their baggage during the boarding process. When passengers have to check their baggage during boarding, it usually slows things down a lot because there is a lot of confusion and movement in the (likely crowed) aisle — it can quickly turn into a mess.
For that reason, the crew will announce over the speaker system that the flight is full along with making a request for some people to check their bags.
Often, the airline will focus on people in the later boarding groups because those will be the most at risk for not having overhead storage bin space. And sometimes they may even make a specific request like we need “five passengers to check their bags.”
They don’t want you getting adventurous
Lots of times the crew will tell you that the flight is full because they don’t want people lollygagging or getting too adventurous with trying out different seats.
This is especially true on Southwest where you can choose your own seat. Lots of passengers want to avoid sitting next to other people so they will hunt out rows with multiple open seats.
This can slow down the boarding process but if these people think everything will be full they won’t spend time hunting down those seats.
And even if the flight does allow you to reserve your seat, they may still make this announcement because they don’t want people trying to swap out their seat with a seat that they think is empty.
In other words, putting pressure on passengers (by telling them that the flight is full) usually makes passengers less “adventurous” and more focused on getting to their seat which is a good thing if you want to streamline boarding.
People buy extra seats
Lots of airlines allow passengers to buy an extra seat that remains empty.
This is often done for “passengers of size” who need extra space so that they don’t create an issue for adjacent passengers.
But some people also just purchase an extra seat so that they can have a more comfortable flight. This is why if you are ever trying to hop into a different seat, you should not assume that it is available to you.
How can you tell if your flight is really full?
One thing to listen for when crewmembers make the “flight is full” announcement is do they say something like this flight is “completely full” or just that “we have a full flight.”
Sometimes when they put that emphasis on completely you are dealing with 100% occupancy.
Ultimately, if you want to know how full the flight is you can just ask a gate agent or flight attendant. They should generally provide you with an accurate answer but they may not even have the latest data all the time.
There are also other ways to check (or at least get information to guess) on how full the flight will be. We’ve written on this topic before and you should definitely check out that article if you are curious about how to tell if your flight is full.
Basically, there are a few things you can do but most of them only provide you with an estimate.
- Asking the check-in or gate agent
- Calling the airline
- Checking upgrade and standby lists
- Attempting a large booking
- Checking the fare buckets
- Checking the seat map
- Talking to flight attendants
- Checking the news
It’s not uncommon for crewmembers to announce that a flight is full when every seat is not actually occupied. But they are not doing this because they enjoy lying to passengers. It’s usually because they don’t have the most up-to-date data regarding no-shows or because they want passengers to board and store their luggage as efficiently as possible.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.