WTC: Why were there so few people on all four planes?

This has been bugging my wife quite a bit so she asked me to post. She travels on business a lot and is very familiar with the Boston–>San Francisco route. Now, all four planes were headed for large metropolitan areas and were originating from same (Newark, I’m told, is often used as an alternative to JFK/La Guardia). Having checked the Boeing website, we see that, depending on the model, a 757 can hold anywhere from 194-289 passengers, and a 767 from 180-375.

Now, the combined passenger total for all four planes was only 233. My wife says that she’s never done an east-west coast run that wasn’t at least 75% full–even on a red-eye, let alone a weekday morning (she’s travelled at all different times). Even using the smallest model of each plane and putting them at 50% capacity, that would still total 374. These planes were running an average of 30% capacity! I don’t remember the last time I was on a plane that deserted (that’s barely one person every two rows in a single-aisle six-wide)

Also, given our extensive experience with United in the past year or two, they tend to overschedule popular routes and then cancel them, consolidating passengers from multiple planes onto single flights. Given all this, what are the odds that all four planes would be dramatically low in occupancy (especially if you subtract the hijackers, at least two per plane and possibly more)? I don’t think there’s any way they could have planned on this, but I can’t help but imagine how much easier the hijackers’ “job” was with so few passengers to contend with (especially since they apparently had no firearms, just close-quarter weapons).

Any thoughts or ideas?

This is the most ridiculous and absurd of posts (okay, I’m embarassed to be typing this, even) but when I was in high school I read something that planes that go down tend to have an unusal number of cancellations and no-shows. This source did not claim that people KNEW the plane would crash, just that a larger than normal number of people “felt sick,” missed their flight, etc.

I have been wondering the same thing myself. I can’t believe that it’s coincidence that all of the planes were so lightly occupied. Given the tactics that were apparently used, one has to think that the hijackers selected these flights specifically because they had so few passengers aboard – not to minimize loss of life, but to reduce the likelihood of the hijackers being overpowered by passengers. I have to wonder whether they may not have made use of online ticket buying through the airline web sites or travel sites like Travelocity that allow you to select your seat from a seat map that shows the number of seats already reserved; doing so would have allowed them to buy tickets as late as the day before with reasonable certainty that the flights wouldn’t be full.

CNN reported a while ago that one of the passengers on United 93, the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, called his family on his cell phone after the plane was hijacked. On being told that two planes had been deliberately flown into the WTC buildings, he put down the phone, and on returning told his family that he’d polled the men on board and that they’d resolved to attempt to retake the plane from the hijackers. If that’s true, it reinforces the idea that the hijackers would have wanted as few people as possible on the flights. It also underscores something I’ve been thinking, which is that it’ll be nearly impossible for anyone to repeat the tactics used in this case – any planeload of passengers who’re hijacked from this point forward will undoubtedly realize that they have no chance to save themselves or others without overpowering the hijackers, and as long as the hijackers’ weaponry is limited to knives and other hand-to-hand weapons, it stands to reason that any given group of 20 to 25 or more passengers will be able to subdue any group of five or fewer hijackers.

All speculation at this point, of course.

This has been bugging me, too. The PA flight had an extraordinarily small number of passengers - 38. The ones that plowed into the buildings were well below capacity also. The reasonable explanation might be that the terrorists deliberately picked low volume flights, perhaps initial legs of flights with stops where they would normally pick up more passengers. As you observed, it would be to their advantage to have fewer passengers to contend with. The operation was well-coordinated, and one can assume that they studied the normal patterns for the flights they chose. But airline industry economics being what it is, I find a 757 with 38 passengers quite astonishing.

rmariamp, IIRC, that little nugget of information showed up in Stephen King’s The Stand. I have no idea if King pulled it from a real study or if he made it up for his novel.

Yes, I wondered as well. I’ve seen much cheaper flights cancelled that had more passengers on them. Four flights, that lightly loaded, seems incredibly odd to me. Especially since all my flights in this last year have been 90%+ capacity - even the 6:05 am one to SLC.

In my experience, (4-6 round trips per year) the early morning flights are always much lighter than later in the day. I fly frequently from Oakland to Seattle, San Francisco to Mobile or Pensacola, and occasionally Oakland to Chicago. I cannot recall ever being on a plane (usually Alaska, Delta, or United) that took off before 8:00 am that was more than half full, unless it was within a day or two of a major holiday. I usually get get a whole row of seats to myself, which is why I like to haul my butt out of bed and take the earliest possible flight.

I’m certain, BTW, that part of the investigation will cover no-shows and last-minute cancellations for those flights. There COULD be a few less passengers if the terrorists had planted a few more who chickened out (or came to their senses, if you prefer) and didn’t show up to get on the plane. Heck, if they had a large enough budget for the operation, they could have planted a lot of passengers, and planned to have some cancel at the last minute to deliberately lower the passenger count. You wouldn’t think they would want to make the airlines suspicious, though.

yabob made an interesting point.

What is to stop a future terrorist group from buying ALL the seats on a plane? Or, at least, most of them.

Then they would only have to overpower the crew and they’ll have their very own guided missile.

Mind you, I suppose that would mean you’d need to have 100 suicide bombers available in your terrorist group.

But you might be able to do it once. I believe the PLO actually has a school for suicide bombers.

It’s expensive. Really expensive. Even if you can get each seat for $100, which is basically magic on a cross country flight, it would cost +$15,000. Per plane. And apparently all you need are 3-5 seats (at least, the first time).

Also, if you buy all of the seats like that, you are very easy to trace (Which credit record should we run? Any of them!). That is, to avoid having all the seats come from one account, which is suspicious, you have to have dozens of accounts. Which just spreads information about you.

They’d be on their own guided missile. Instead of having 5 people at a time who are willing to die, you need 100.

But if you have 100 of these bombers, why not spread them out a little? It just seems like an incredible waste of resources…


Most of your speach made sense. But this point was kinda silly. I highly doubt that somebody is going to be paying the credit card bill on the cards that purchased the 3-5 seats per plane that they DID buy. The SEATS were, more or less, free for the terrorists.

But you are correct in saying that the loss of people would probably be too expensive.


I, for one, remember the days when one could get a reservation for a flight without paying a dime. As in the movie “Switching Channels,” one could, using fake names and other made-up info, reserve every seat on a plane in a short time. Only those people who had reservations and/or tickets prior to this kind of stunt would be on the plane, along with the folks waiting at the airport until a few minutes before the flight, when the airline would start selling the no-show’s seats.

I assume, though, that this kind of nonsense isn’t allowed anymore.

But let’s not forget that these particular terrorists appear to have been well-funded. I don’t know offhand how much commerical flight school costs, but if it wasn’t at least a few thousand per student, I’d be surprised. $15,000 per plane to guarantee a large percentage of empty seats doesn’t seem unreasonable.

And let’s also not make the mistake of thinking that if someone “pays” for a seat (whether they intend to pay the credit card bill or not), then there must be a person who actually intends to get on the plane. One person can buy up the seats with a bunch of (valid, invalid, stolen, whatever) credit cards. At least, it seems reasonable to me that only one person calls to buy tickets for a family of four - they wouldn’t expect a 12-year-old to call for himself, would they?

Heck, one terrorist, one platinum card, one Yellow Pages opened to “travel agents,” one White Pages for fake names (if needed), and one phone. A few hours and a few dozen phone calls later: a hundred tickets which will never be claimed. Only “3 to 6” terrorists ever board the flight.

Oh, slackergirl: The Dulles or BWI to LA flights on monday mornings (on United or Delta, before 8 AM) are always packed beyond capacity - they always have to boot some half-dozen or so people to later flights. Friday’s flights going the other way are just as full. If you enjoy being laughed at, ask the employees at the gate desk if there’s a chance you could get your middle seat assignment changed for a window.

I travel from Sacramento to Philadelphia about once a month. I leave Sac around 7AM and arrive in Philly at around 4:30. On the return, I leave Philly around 11AM and get home at about 4PM, give or take.

When traveling west to east it makes sense to book early morning flights because of the three hour time change at the east coast destination. Traveling east to west I’ve rarely volunteered to get up so damn early - the time difference is in my favor when disembarking on the west coast.

Just my two cents.

Good call on the paying for seats thing. I was thinking about it last night on my ride home… I guess maybe they wouldn’t want to ruin their credit records?

<hanging head in shame>


Another reason for low numbers of passengers:
I read that Tuesdays are the lowest-volume days for the airlines. I think that came from the USA Today, but I’m not sure (I’ve been scanning so many news sites that they’re all mixed up in my head).

I think that the hijackers probably padded the passenger list by making false bookings the day before. ( easy enough to do. or at least it use to be.)

Early AM flights are usually sparse, but these flights seemed really sparse.

It is also conceivable (IMO probable) that these routes were deliberately chosen and scouted by the hijackers in advance for being low-capacity routes. It is far easier for 3-5 hijackers to intimidate and control a plane with 40 people than it is with 200 people.

First of all, I think an important development has occurred that sheds some light on how this may have happened. Today in both the JFK and La Guardia airports in NY, 10 men were taken into custody who, in addition to being armed with knives, also had fake airport IDs, pilot “papers”, and bags marked Crew.

Now, anyone who flies regularly cross-country knows that very often, airlines use underbooked flights to shuttle off-duty pilots and other staff from one location to another (especially if they have 2-3 consecutive days off and are returning home from their assigned “hub”). If these individuals were impersonating off-duty crews, this explains how they would have bypassed ordinary security procedures as well as been put on flights known to have the room to spare (especially since it’s not uncommon for these staff members to travel together if they have a common destination)

A couple of problems with this is that this requires a great deal of spontaneity instead of advance planning. Not only would this strategy fail to guarantee that all the terrorist teams would be leaving around the same time, but it also does not guarantee that the plane would be a smaller 757 or 767 instead of one of the larger planes that are often used for international flights and are double-aisled and 9-12 seats wide. These would be much harder to gain control of and, from what I’ve read, prohibitively difficult to fly (since the required cockpit crews are larger and the controls different than what you’d learn at the flying schools in question).

Now some responses:

The problem with this is that all those “people” would show up on the flight manifest and would have been included in the passenger count unless they used a boarding pass count, in which case the large discrepancy between boarding passes and reservations would have been noticed after-the-fact and no doubt reported among the news coverage (since this information wouldn’t have compromised the current investigation). No such reports have emerged.

I have to go along with DaveW here–my wife made these cross-country flights out of Logan every week (again, often at different times or on different days) and she never ran into a plane that was even close to being as empty as these planes were.

The problem with this is that the airline typically gives Travelocity a block of seats to sell. The availability on the website shows how many seats are reserved within this block and not total availability (blocks are often assigned to different agents or different reservation methods, again per people who travel a lot and find seats on “sold out” flights by trying a different agency or the airline directly)

It will be interesting to see what information they can get from these recent suspects.

My roomate, a Aeronautical Engineer/MBA who worked for AA and various foreign airlines doing cost analysis and flight planning confirmed that there is absolutely nothing unusual about the numbers you’re seeing on these flights.

As has been mentioned, Tuesday is far and away the slowest flight day. Early morning East-West flights are also the least popular for consumers. Lastly, September-October are the slowest air travel months.

All these points raised above are likely the precise reason that the terrorists chose this day to make their attack. Forget all this 9-11 BS, they wanted planes that would be easiest to commandier. They unfortunately succeeded.

Trust me when I say there is nothing suspicious about these passenger counts.

Another factor no one has mentioned is the current state of our economy. Just about every corporation I know of has severe travel restrictions in place right now. The airlines are hurting badly because their business has fallen off so sharply the last few months.

Sure, most of the flights I’ve been on in the last year were pretty full too, but I haven’t travelled much in the last three or four months because of business conditions.

Also, selective recall might be a factor. It seems like we’re always on crowded flights because the others are not as memorable. Now that I think about it, I’ve been on several flights with as few as 15 or 20 passengers. I flew a 777 in March from Denver to San Francisco, and it was about 15% full.