So far this year, holiday weekends have shaped up as busy days for travel across the country — but with repeated spates of flight cancellations and skyrocketing gas prices, what can Americans expect come this Independence Day?
The American Automobile Association predicts nearly 48 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from their homes between June 30 - July 4, a nearly 4% jump from last year and the highest July Fourth weekend travel since pre-pandemic.
“Earlier this year, we started seeing the demand for travel increase and it’s not tapering off,” Paula Twidale, AAA Travel senior vice president, wrote in a statement. “People are ready for a break and despite things costing more, they are finding ways to still take that much needed vacation.”
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, customer complaints against airlines have risen 300% compared to pre-pandemic.
Airlines have, in turn, criticized the government agency that manages the nation’s airspace, saying that understaffing at the FAA is “crippling” traffic along the East Coast.
Airlines for America, which represents the largest U.S. carriers, said Friday it wants to know FAA’s staffing plans for the July Fourth holiday weekend, “so we can plan accordingly.”
The comments from the industry group could serve as a preemptive defense in case airlines again suffer thousands of canceled and delayed flights over the holiday weekend, when travel is expected to set new pandemic-era highs.
Road travel is expected to surge this holiday weekend, according to AAA, a surprise to some experts given high price tags at the pump for oil and gas. The agency expects around 42 million individuals to travel by car between Friday and Sunday, a projected increase of .4% from last year when gas prices were markedly lower.
While gas prices on Monday reached $4.81 — down from a record high of a $5 national average in mid-June — the cost is still $1.80 more than a year ago, per AAA.
AAA attributes the slight increase in car travel, in part, to concerns over flight delays and cancellations, as recent holiday weekends have seen scores of flights scrapped last-minute across the country.
“Traveling by car does provide a level of comfort and flexibility that people may be looking for given the recent challenges with flying,” Twidale’s statement added. “But not all destinations are within driving distance, which doesn’t mean you have to abandon your vacation plans. The best advice we can give travelers is to consider working with a travel agent who can help plan for the unexpected — like a flight cancelation.”
AAA is warning travelers planning to drive to their destinations this holiday weekend to expect the most traffic this coming Thursday and Friday as people leave work early and take to the roads in droves.
“We expect nationwide travel times to increase about 50% compared to normal. Drivers around major metro areas must be prepared for significantly more delays,” Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst at data analytics firm INRIX said in part. “Knowing when and where congestion will build can help drivers avoid the stress of sitting in traffic. Our advice is to avoid traveling on Thursday and Friday afternoon.”
Traffic in New York City is expected to surge 142% on Saturday between 10:30 a.m. EST - 12:30 p.m. local time; in Los Angeles traffic will peak at 147% of normal capacity on Friday between 4:15 p.m. - 6:15 p.m. local time and in Seattle capacity will increase 138% Friday between 4:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. local time.
Air travel has increased dramatically this year compared to the past two years of the pandemic, with AAA estimating around 3.6 million Americans will travel through airports on the Fourth of July.
Though the Transportation Security Administration is not providing passenger volume projections for this holiday weekend, a spokesperson told Spectrum News, past holiday weekends may offer a clue as to what travelers can expect. Currently, TSA recommends travelers arrive the usual two hours before their flight departs for domestic travel and three hours for international travel.
Airlines canceled thousands of flights over the Memorial Day weekend, leaving passengers stranded at airports across the country — and around the world — in an ominous start to the summer travel season.
U.S. airlines canceled more than 2,800 flights that holiday Thursday through Monday, or about 2% of their schedules, according to tracking service FlightAware.
Weeks later, airlines began canceling flights the Thursday of Father’s Day and Juneteenth weekend in response to a spate of storms across the country. Airports with the most cancellations included those in Charlotte, North Carolina, a major hub for American Airlines, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty in the New York City area, and Reagan Washington National outside Washington, D.C.
By the end of Thursday, airlines scrubbed more than 1,700 flights, according to tracking service FlightAware. On Friday, airlines canceled 1,400 flights, many of them again because thunderstorms hit parts of the East Coast.
Unfortunately for those traveling by air this weekend, the poor weather may pose challenges yet again for airlines, with the The FAA on Thursday warning Friday afternoon is likely to be most impacted.
"We have a forecast that the weather tomorrow afternoon across the country should be relatively bad, especially in the southeast area from Atlanta to Florida down to Texas, also up in the northeast," John Lucia, FAA national traffic management officer, said in a video released Thursday. "So if you're trying to fly out of the northeast or try to fly into the northeast tomorrow afternoon, you will probably encounter delays."
On top of the unpredictable summer weather, airlines are struggling with shortages of workers, especially pilots, that are hurting their ability to operate all their planned flights. Pilot unions at Delta, American and Southwest have said their airlines were too slow to replace pilots who retired or took leaves of absence during the early part of the pandemic.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday acknowledged there "are going to be challenges" in air travel this weekend, saying his agency is working with airlines to address the issue.
"We're talking to the airlines every day about their responsibility to make sure that they can accommodate any issues that weather or other curveballs might throw them," Buttigieg said in an interview with NBC News' Lester Holt. "A lot of people, including me, are expecting to get to loved ones over this holiday weekend. And we need a system that is resilient enough to get them there plus, good customer service when an issue does come up."
Last year, TSA screened over 10 million people between July 1 to July 5, which represented 83% of the travel volume from the same time period in 2019.
Among the top domestic destinations this Fourth of July — based on cumulative air travel, car rentals, hotel bookings, tours and more, per AAA — are Orlando, Seattle, New York and Anaheim, California. Top international destinations include Vancouver, Paris, London and Rome.
According to AAA, air travel is expected to be busiest on Friday, July 1 and lightest on Monday, July 4.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.