In a summer of extremely full flights I found myself on a Southwest 737 with just 9 passengers

Jul 27, 2022

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If you’ve traveled anywhere since about March, you probably know what to expect: full flights, delays and cancellations, lost luggage and long lines. We’ve all seen the photos of mountains of unclaimed bags, snaking airport checkpoint queues and crowded airport gates. The process of flying hasn’t been a whole lot of fun in recent months.

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I’ve been traveling regularly since the start of the year, and I’d given up hope of the small luxuries of yesteryear, such as lucking into sitting next to an empty middle seat. With some extra patience at the ready — and lots of tricks and tools of the trade (like TSA PreCheck and carrying credit cards that get me priority boarding) — I’ve been mostly fine. But like a lot of travelers, flying these days has added a bit more stress to the trip experience.

Last week, when I was flying home to Baltimore on Southwest Airlines, my first leg from Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) to Nashville International Airport (BNA), operated on a Boeing 737-700, was completely full. The second leg, from Nashville to Tampa, was more of the same. That’s become the norm — Southwest, for example, had said that it expected its planes to be somewhere between 85-87% full between April and June.

But then, something different happened. You could almost call it an aviation miracle.

My third and final flight home (yes, I took the long way home as I’m racking up flight segments to requalify for Southwest A-List status), had just nine passengers — on a Boeing 737-800 built for 175.

(Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

Sure, these almost empty planes were common for a period of time in the spring of 2020, but this was different.

While those flights seemed eerie due to their absence of humanity, this flight, for me, was just a joyful change of pace in a season of packed-to-the-brim passenger loads.

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Between giggling and joyfully smiling over having a few entire rows to myself, I asked the crew if there was any specific reason for this “almost private” 737. They seemed as surprised as me and didn’t know exactly what caused it.

We did know that after flying this light load, the plane would be overnighting at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) before starting early for its next day’s worth of flights. That’s probably why the airline didn’t cancel it altogether; Southwest needed the plane at BWI for the next day.

And while recently there have been more delayed aircraft than usual and most flights are flying with very high load factors (a high percentage of available seats filled with passengers), there are exceptions to every rule.

This third and final flight home for me was a perfect example of being prepared for the worst — and then enjoying the heck out of the moment when it became clear this flight was going to be quite the treat.

Boarding took all of five minutes and I literally had a whole section of the plane to myself.

I was able to sit in the window seat during takeoff. There was space in the overhead bin for my carry-on luggage and my backpack, which meant I could stretch my legs. I could spread out my iPad on one tray table and put other things on the seat and tray next to me. And finally, I knew that deplaning was going to be a total breeze, especially since I was in row 2.

For those two glorious hours in the sky, there we all were, marveling at the sight of an almost empty flight home.

We took off, enjoyed a brief drink service, then sat back and enjoyed the ride.

In this season of sometimes stressful travel, it was a delightful respite indeed.

Featured image by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.

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