Memorial Day holiday travel begins early test for airlines

HOLIDAY TRAVEL: The Leesing family at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., on May 25. They were among the millions of people expected to travel over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Lori Aratani/The Washington Post

Millions of Americans are taking to the roads, rails and skies for Memorial Day weekend, the start of what is shaping up to be one of the busiest summer travel seasons and further proof that despite economic concerns, consumers are still willing to spend on travel.

AAA is projecting 42.3 million people will travel more than 50 miles from home, up 7 percent from 2022, but slightly below the 42.8 million who ventured out in 2019 before the pandemic. Of those, 37.1 million are expected to drive, a small drop compared to 2019. At the same time, more people are expected to fly than four years ago, while buses and rail services also expect a rise in passenger counts.

'Get there early'

"We always tell people, get up and get there early," said Nicholas E. Calio, chief executive of airline trade group Airlines for America (A4A), this week at a summer travel summit co-sponsored by CQ Roll Call. "I would say right now, get there even earlier than you're expecting, because there are a lot of people at the airports."

The holiday weekend will be an early test for U.S. carriers and the Federal Aviation Administration, which have put new measures in place to avoid the chaos that has marred pandemic-era air travel. The disruptions have drawn the ire of passengers, regulators and lawmakers, leading to finger-pointing about the root cause of problems, which many attribute to the industry's lack of preparedness for a faster-than-expected travel rebound.

While most people will drive to their destinations, Greyhound and Flixbus say Memorial Day weekend bookings are up 70 percent over last year. Amtrak expects 213,800 riders across its system over the holiday weekend, up from nearly 138,000 last year. According to AAA, the number of people traveling by modes such as cruise, bus or train is expected to rise more than 20 percent compared to last year.

Ragina Cooper Ali, spokesperson for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the auto club expects this to be the fourth-busiest Memorial Day weekend in the Washington region since 2000, when AAA began tracking holiday travel. Nationally, it's expected to be the third-busiest Memorial Day.

"Americans, including those in our region, are ready to kick off the Memorial Day weekend with a trip," she said.

Continuing the recent resurgence in air travel, AAA expects an 11 percent increase in the number of people who plan to fly compared to last year, and a 5.4 percent increase over 2019 levels.

Expect delays from airlines

Earlier this year, the Department of Transportation created dashboards spelling out what passengers can expect from airlines when flights are canceled or significantly delayed. Congressional committees have held hearings on the industry's problems as pressure has mounted on regulators to take more action.

"Travelers definitely have concerns," said Henry Harteveldt, an aviation analyst and president of Atmosphere Research. "These days when they go to airports, they are thinking 'What's going to go wrong with my trip?' instead of feeling confident that their flight is going to leave on time."

After Southwest Airlines's high-profile December meltdown, there are signs that airline operations are improving. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said this week that preliminary numbers from the FAA show that fewer than 2 percent of flights were canceled to start the year - the lowest rate in years.

"The progress is real," he said. "But that does not mean we are out of the woods. We see an even higher level of demand this year and that's going to be put enormous pressure on the system."

Among the industry's most significant changes, airlines last year hired 50,000 new employees and airline employment is at its highest level since October 2001, said John Heimlich, chief economist for A4A. Carriers also have adjusted schedules to better manage potential disruptions.

"We have gone above and beyond to make sure we are ready for the summer and for the increased demand," said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy at A4A.

In contrast to last year, when airlines and the FAA sparred over which bore responsibility for flight disruptions, the two sides are working together more closely to identify solutions.

The FAA recently asked airlines to reduce flights - while using larger aircraft to minimize changes to capacity - in the Northeast because of a shortage of air traffic controllers in a key New York-area facility. The agency also added 169 routes along the East Coast, which it hopes will ease congestion and give controllers more options if weather poses a threat.

United Airlines projects the Memorial Day holiday will be its busiest in more than a decade. The Chicago-based carrier said it expects to transport 2.9 million passengers between Thursday and Tuesday. Delta Air Lines said it expects to carry 2.8 million passengers over that period, a 17 percent increase over last year. American Airlines, which will operate 26,000 flights over the holiday, said it expects to carry more than 2.9 million customers.

Smaller carriers also are seeing passenger gains as leisure travelers continue to be the backbone of the industry's recovery.

Daniel Shurz, senior vice president, commercial, at Frontier Airlines, said the ultralow cost carrier is also growing 35% in seats compared to 2019. Still, he acknowledged pandemic-era growth has introduced problems with reliability. Frontier has been able to reduce cancellations, he said, but delays remain a problem.

"We've got work to do," he said. "We're working on our on-time performance and it's trending in the right direction."

David Pekoske, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, said the agency already is seeing a significant number of people moving through airport checkpoints. On Sunday, officers screened more than 2.6 million people, the most in a day since the pandemic began. He said the TSA is fully staffed ahead of the Memorial Day weekend. The agency expects Friday to be its busiest day, when it projects screening 2.6 million people.

TSA could move quicker through security

The agency also announced a change this week that could help families move more quickly through security. Travelers between the ages of 13 and 17 who are with parents or guardians enrolled in TSA PreCheck will be able to use PreCheck lanes if they are traveling on the same reservation. Children 12 and under already can accompany a parent or guardian enrolled in PreCheck.

Holiday crowds had yet to materialize Thursday morning at Reagan National Airport, where travelers moved quickly from check-in counters to security. Some had barely enough time to rest their roller bag before being summoned to show identification and move through the screening line.

Airport spokeswoman Crystal Nosal said parking was still available Thursday in airport garages, but warned travelers to consider making reservations since garages typically fill up during holiday weekends.

Despite a one-hour flight delay, Mayra and Jonathan Leesing, both 36, and their two children, ages 1 and 3, were in good spirits as they stood in line at National to check in for their JetBlue flight to Miami. It was the family's first plane trip since the pandemic began. Mayra Leesing said she was most concerned about how her son and daughter would do on their first flight.

"We're excited to see family," she said.

Jonathan Leesing said the airplane tickets were pricier than he had expected, and then there were the bag fees. The family also wasn't able to get seats in the same row, but were nearby - each responsible for one child.

Ricky Smith, chief executive of Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, said in a statement he expects Memorial Day weekend to be the start of one of the airport's busiest summers. Smith said departures from the airport are up 17 percent over last year.

Reagan National Airport set a record for passenger traffic last year with 24 million people moving through its gates.

For those who are driving this holiday weekend, Inrix, a traffic data firm, predicts roads will be more crowded than last year. Friday will be the worst day for traffic, but leaving Saturday or Sunday could save time, according to Inrix. Those who plan to leave Friday should try to begin driving before noon, the data firm said.

Still, there is some good news for motorists.

John LaForge, head of real asset strategy for Wells Fargo Investment Institute, said a gallon of gas - which averaged $3.53 on Wednesday, according to Wells Fargo - is about 21 percent cheaper than last summer's $4.49 cent average.