Memorial Day brings travel boom, in the air and on the road

(AP Photo/Jenny Kane, file)

Widespread flight delays across the U.S. tested the patience of travelers who tried to get a jump start on Memorial Day weekend, but the relatively few canceled flights raised hopes that airlines would be able to handle the holiday travel boom.

The Transportation Security Administration predicted that Friday will be the busiest day for air travel over the long holiday weekend, with nearly 3 million people expected to pass through airport checkpoints.

On Thursday, the TSA screened just under 2.9 million people, coming within about 11,000 of breaking the record set on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

“Airports are going to be more packed than we have seen in 20 years,” AAA spokesperson Aixa Diaz said.

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Highways also are likely to be jammed the next few days as motorists head out of town and then return home. AAA predicted this will be the busiest start-of-summer weekend in nearly 20 years, with 43.8 million people expected to travel at least 50 miles from home between Thursday and Monday — with 38 million of them taking vehicles.

The annual expression of wanderlust that accompanies the start of the summer travel season is happening at a time when Americans tell pollsters they are worried about the economy and the direction of the country.

“Memorial Day is a holiday weekend. I get to hang with family and friends, so I’d say that’s priceless, right?” Nene Efebo said during a two-hour wait for a delayed flight at Denver International Airport. “Anything to hang out with family and friends.”

Some travelers reported experiencing sticker shock when they booked their trips. Upon arriving at Philadelphia International Airport, Ciarra Marsh said the city “was not our original destination, but we chose here because it was cheaper.”

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At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Larisa Latimer of New Lenox, Illinois, said her airfare was reasonable but other expenses for a getaway to New Orleans were not.

“I just have to make the accommodation,” she said. “The rental car is up … this year, the hotel accommodations were very unusually expensive.”

Kathy Larko of Fort Myers, Florida, used frequent-flyer miles — and some flexible scheduling — to pay for her trip to Chicago.

“I’m really conscious of looking at the cost of the entire trip. We’re staying a little farther out than we normally would” to get a lower hotel rate, she said. “We’re also flying back a day later, because we could get cheaper miles.”

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More than 8,700 flights were delayed Thursday, with the biggest backups in the New York City area; Charlotte, North Carolina; Boston; and at Dallas-Fort Worth International and Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

The numbers improved with more favorable weather Friday, with fewer than 2,000 delays nationwide by midday on the East Coast.

The weekend’s highway traffic and crowded airports could be a sample of what is to come. U.S. airlines expect to carry a record number of passengers this summer. Their trade group estimates that 271 million travelers will fly between June 1 and August 31, breaking the record of 255 million set – you guessed it – last summer.

Airport unions are using the holiday weekend to highlight their demands.

About 100 workers who clean airplane cabins and drive trash trucks at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, started a 24-hour strike Thursday, demanding better pay and healthcare, according to the Service Employees International Union. About 15% of flights were delayed, but it was unclear whether the strike played any role.

A planned strike at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York was averted, however. Teamsters Local 553, which represents about 300 workers who refuel passenger and cargo jets at JFK, said that it reached a settlement with Allied Aviation Services and called off a walkout planned for Friday.

“We are happy an agreement has been reached, a need for a strike averted, and we are hopeful that the deal will be ratified by our members,” said Demos Demopoulos, the secretary-treasurer of the local.