Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
The Final Four at the Airport
March 31, 2016 -- This is guaranteed to happen at the airport thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of times, in the next few days.

Business travelers will fight their way through security checkpoints, or step off connecting flights, rush to the nearest bar, peer up at the television screen and ask a total stranger, "What's the score?"

Thus are born meaningful, if extraordinarily transitory, friendships on the road. Folks who have little else in common except a life on the road will bond over the upcoming NCAA Final Four basketball games. They'll sit together for a while, swapping hoops dreams and airline horror stories, and then move on to their next flights.

I think that's kind of cool. After all, how often do we get to share experiences like that? Total strangers, business travelers on their way to someone and somewhere else, will talk basketball for a few minutes and be friends.

Can I make a suggestion when you belly up to the bar and inquire after the fortunes of the eight remaining men's and women's teams? While you're trying to impress your transitory friend with your roundball smarts, why not drop some airline and airport knowledge on them, too?

Coincidentally, the Department of Transportation has just released its 2015 airline statistics and these fresh-off-the-presses numbers are at least as interesting as the press that the Syracuse men's team employed in its comeback upset over Virginia last weekend. Let me show you how to work them into the airport bar talk.

Filling it up

At some point during the finals, a team will go on a scoring run and your barmate will say blandly, "Wow! They are really filling it up!" You could offer an equally platitudinous response or you could talk load factors. U.S. and foreign carriers serving the United States carried a record-breaking 853.1 million passengers last year. That translates to a load factor of 82.7 percent of all available seats and that, fellow flyers, is really filling it up.

Scoring from downtown

At any number of key moments during the Final Four, one player or another let's be honest, most of these talented young men and women are unknown to us will score repeatedly from behind the three-point line. Rather than mindlessly bleating "From downtown!" to express your amazement at the player's long-distance accuracy, try working airline stats into the conversation. You can explain that the average nonstop flight in 2015 was 941 miles, up 2.9 percent from 2014. The average passenger in 2015 flew 1,432 miles one-way, virtually unchanged from 2014.

About that Number 1 seed...

Three of the four Number 1 seeds in the men's division were upset before the Final Four. No need to repeat that well-known fact while you're chatting with your new friend, however. Use this instead: thanks to its merger with US Airways, American Airlines in 2015 surpassed Southwest Airlines as the carrier with the most passengers. American carried 146,550,000 flyers last year compared to Southwest's 144,575,000. Delta finished third (138,591,000 passengers), followed by United (95,327,000). JetBlue was a distant fifth with 35 million customers. Alaska Airlines carried 22,828,000 flyers.

July Madness

The television graphics for the Final Four games might still say "March Madness," which is more accurately applied to the first weekend's slate of games 48 in the men's tournament alone played virtually end-to-end. But if someone at the bar brings the moniker up, remind them that July is when the U.S. skies are maddest. More than 85 million of us took to the air in 2015, followed by August (82.8 million), June (79.9 million) and May (77.4 million). Slowest months of the year for flying? February, when just 60.6 million flew in 2015, followed by January (65.2 million).

Scoring in bunches

If a player gets hot and runs up his or her stats, you can amaze (or possibly annoy) your newly found frequent flying friend with a bit of history, both basketball and aeronautic. Austin Carr holds the record for most points scored in a men's final four game. He went for 61 in 1970. The Austin Carr of airports? Atlanta. The Delta hub and primary airport in the Southeast registered 49.3 million enplanements in 2015, 5.9 percent more than 2015. Los Angeles moved into the number 2 slot(36.2 million), followed by Chicago's O'Hare Airport (36.1 million).

The international game

Inevitably, someone at the bar will claim to be fluent in several languages and the influx of international players to U.S. college teams. Fire back with these high-flying stats. New York's John F. Kennedy handled the most international traffic last year with 14.4 million flyers. Just across the Hudson River, Newark handled 5.7 million more. That 20+ million explains why New York is the center of the aviation universe. Miami was a distant second with 10 million international enplanements. Los Angeles finished third with 9.6 million customers.

Impact off the bench

During more than one game over the next few days, a bench player will enter the game and change the dynamic of the tournament. Airlines have bench players, too, only they are called commuter carriers. These independent airlines operate about half of the nation's flights using the colors and logos of the major carriers. The largest of these aeronautic bench players? SkyWest Airlines, It flies for American, Delta, United and Alaska Airlines and carried 30 million passengers in 2015. That makes it the sixth largest passenger airline in the United States.

For (endless) commercial breaks

Finally, let's be honest. No matter how much time you spend at an airport bar watching the Final Four with a newfound frequent flying friend, you'll actually spend more minutes in commercial break than watching a fast break. Three bits of trivia to get you past the endless beer commercials and Southwest Airlines "transfarency" spots.

Fastest-growing airline in the nation? Spirit Airlines. It carried 17.6 million flyers in 2015, 26 percent more than 2014. Largest international airline serving the United States? British Airways with 7 million customers, followed by Lufthansa with 5.5 million. Fastest-growing international carrier in the United States? Virgin Atlantic, which carried 3.5 million flyers in 2015, 13.8 percent more than 2014. The reason for Virgin's fast growth? Its alliance with Delta Air Lines.

This column is Copyright 2016 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.