Load factor in aviation primarily refers to the percentage of seats that have been occupied in either a single flight or an airline as a whole.

This metric is commonly used by both investors and managers to judge an airline’s performance, and its optimization is vital to airline operations.

A high load factor means that an airline is experiencing high demand.

A load factor of around 70% is needed to break even for most airlines. So a load factor of 90% or above is ideal for profitability.

This is because a high load factor means airlines have sold a large proportion of their seats.

Airlines improve their load factors by both improving their marketing and optimizing their flight routes. 

What Does Load Factor Mean in Aviation?

Load factor has two meanings in aviation.

In aeronautics, load factor refers to the ratio of an aircraft’s lift to its weight. Essentially, it’s the stress that an aircraft’s structure is subjected to. 

The second definition is the percentage of the available seating capacity that is filled with passengers.

This definition of load factor indicates whether an airline has sold most of its available seats.

This statistic is released by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) monthly. 

High Load Factor

A high load factor implies that an airline has sold most of its seats, making it more likely that an airline is profitable.

Low Load Factor

A low load factor implies that an airline has not sold most of its seats, so an airline will be losing money on a flight route.

Why is the Load Factor Important in Aviation?

Load factor helps both investors and managers measure an airline’s performance.

Most airlines have slim profit margins due to high costs, so it’s vital for airlines to have a high load factor.

How Does Load Factor Impact Airline Profitability?

The higher the airline’s load factor, the more profitable it likely is.

A high load factor means that large numbers of people are buying tickets for the airline’s flights.

As airlines become profitable by selling as many seats on all their flights as possible, carrying more passengers means the flight earns more revenue and profit. 

For most airlines, their breakeven load factor is normally around 70%. But it can be slightly higher or lower depending on the airline.

What is the Optimal Load Factor For Airlines?

The optimal load factor for most airlines would be as close to 100% as possible, with most airlines needing a load factor between at least 70 and 80%.

For example, most US airlines, like Delta, United, and Southwest, need a load factor between 72.5% and 78.9% to break even.

So a 90% load factor signals an extremely profitable month for them, which is more common during peak travel periods.

How Do Airlines Maximize Load Factor?

Airlines maximize load factor in two ways: 

1. Optimizing Routes

Optimizing the routes ensures that the largest number of passengers will book a flight.

Ideally, airlines want to only plan those routes that will likely have a high enough load factor to generate profit. 

Some airlines, like United Airlines, even design software to automatically cancel flights with load factors below 30%. 

2. Marketing

Marketing and advertising are essential for attracting customers.

Airlines that perform better marketing are able to attract more passengers away from rival airlines, thereby increasing their load factor. 

What is the Load Factor in Aeronautics?

Load factor in aeronautics is the ratio of an airplane’s lift to its body.

It can be thought of as the stress the aircraft can endure at specific altitudes. 

How to Calculate an Airline’s Load Factor

The load factor can be calculated using the following calculations. 

  • RPMS stands for the number of Revenue Passenger Miles, and it’s expressed as a percentage of Available Seat Miles (ASMs) for either a specific flight or an entire airline. 
  • ASMs is an aviation output measurement. It’s also the product of the number of seats on a plane and the distance the plane has flown. 
  • For example, a plane with 100 seats that’s flown 100 miles has 10,000 available seat miles.
  • Referring to this information, the load factor is the proportion of this output that’s consumed.
  • Load factor will be calculated by dividing RPMs by ASMs.
  • Conversely, load factor can also be calculated by dividing the number of passengers by the number of seats. 

Here’s an example. 

  • Let’s say an airline operates an airliner with 285 seats for a flight.
  • The revenue per passenger for this particular flight is $203 per leg.
  • The distance between the plane’s takeoff and destination is 1,200 miles. 
  • We’ll calculate the load factor with the following formula: Load factor =((Number of passengers * distance )/ number of available seats * distance)*100%
  • This results in Load factor = ((203 * 1200)/(285 * 1200))*100%
  • Hence, the load factor is 71.22%

In conclusion:

  • The term load factor has two meanings in aviation.
  • In aeronautics, load factor refers to the ratio of an airplane’s lift to its weight. It’s a measurement of the stress an airplane experiences.
  • More commonly, load factor simply refers to the percentage of seats that have been sold for either a single flight or multiple flights.
  • A flight or airline’s load factor is an important metric in determining its profitability.
  • A higher load factor indicates that an airline has a higher demand, which translates into higher revenue and profit.
  • Airlines increase their load factor by optimizing their routes and improving their marketing. 

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).