9/11 flight passenger numbers

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One issue sometimes raised about the 9/11 flights is that they may have carried unusually few passengers. Margie Burns wrote about this in July 2006:

Others take a similar view, though we're not entirely sure why. Would reduced load factors really be such a huge advantage?

Burns explains that fewer passengers meant less people to control, for example. That's true, but it's hard to see how it would have made an effective difference on 9/11. The passengers would still have cooperated, we believe, as they'd have expected the hijacking to have turned into a hostage situation. An extra 50 passengers on board wouldn't have changed that.

And if a group of passengers had decided to fight back, then only so many could have usefully done so at one time. There were more than enough passengers and crew to fill the aisles in the assumed assault on the cockpit door, for instance. If there were another 50 people available, what more could they have done?

Burns also suggests that there was "less passenger weight to use up fuel". Again, true enough, but how much difference would this have made? And if the flight had been 100% full, loaded with cargo and luggage, then don't airlines take account of this and load up with more fuel? That's just an assumption, don't take that as accurate, but if it is true then a fuller plane may have been an advantage to the hijackers. Not least because it would have increased the casualty figures.

We don't necessarily buy the idea that low passenger numbers particularly helped the hijackers, then. And in reality there's another reason why this may have come about. The hijackers researched their flights online, and had particular requirements, for example wanting each team to be either in first class, or as close to the front of the plane as possible. They also knew that they were going to book tickets in small groups, no more than two at a time, presumably to avoid suspicion. Whoever picked the flights would avoid any that were full or almost full, then, as there was a chance they wouldn't get all the seats they needed. They would instead gravitate to emptier flights, perhaps contributing to figures we've eventually seen.

Of course the Burns piece does nothing to prove that the load factors were unusual, anyway. Vague comparisons like "generally the numbers had been running 70% - 75% during the year" are meaningless: what you really need to know is what the figures had been like previously for those particular flights. And interestingly enough, while Burns attempts to tell us that the 9/11 Commission avoided the topic ("no mention of the even lower load factors on two other flights"), they did actually publish the details we need in a "Staff Monograph on the Four Flights and Civil Aviation Security".

Excluding the hijackers, then Flight 11 had 76 passengers out of a capacity of 158, a load factor of 48.1%. The average over Tuesdays on the past three months is reported as "almost 39%", so the 9/11 flight was noticeably higher.

Flight 77 had 53 passengers out of a capacity of 176, a load factor of 30.1%. The average over Tuesdays on the past three months is reported as 32.8%, so the 9/11 flight was a little lower.

Flight 93 had 33 passengers out of a capacity of 182, a load factor of 18.1%. The average over Tuesdays on the past three months is reported as 52.8%, so the 9/11 flight was vastly lower, in fact the lowest at any time in that three month period.

Flight 175 had 51 passengers out of a capacity of 168, a load factor of 30.3%. The average over Tuesdays on the past three months is reported as 49%, so the 9/11 flight was considerably lower, although there were two flights during that three month period when it was lower still.

Overall, then, we have one flight with an above average load factor; one marginally below average; one well below average, though still within the range of other flights in the preceding 3 months; and one with the lowest load factor during that period. It's hard to see any real pattern here.

Still, though inconsistent, overall the load factor is clearly on the low side. Could there be any reason for this? From my home in the UK I have no knowledge whatsoever about US internal flights, however a discussion thread on this topic at Airliners.net should have involved many that do, and their thoughts included the following:

I can't vouch for any of the information here, but there is wide support for the idea that a Tuesday, in September, after the holiday, in the aviation climate of the day, would be expected to deliver reduced load factors. (Although we've intentionally included only ideas as to why this might be, so please go read the thread to see how it played out originally.) Combine this view with the fact that only two of the four flights had significantly fewer passengers than usual anyway, and it's hard to see any real significance in the load factor data.