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Squeezing in one last summer trip over Labor Day weekend? Expect crowded airports and full flights

DALLAS (AP) — By some measures, air travelers have enjoyed a less stressful summer than last year, but canceled flights remain elevated as airlines face their last big test of the prime vacation season: Labor Day weekend.

The Federal Aviation Administration predicts that this will be the third busiest holiday weekend of the year so far, behind only the Juneteenth weekend, which included Father's Day, and the Presidents Day break.

Hurricane Idalia weakened and headed out to sea Thursday. While the storm left damage and power outages, its impact on travel eased. Airlines canceled several dozen flights in Florida and Georgia on Thursday but expected to operate at full strength Friday. Travelers can check conditions where they are going on the FAA website.

Thursday figured to be the busiest day in U.S. airspace, with 52,203 flights scheduled, followed by 49,111 flights on Friday, according to the FAA. After a lull on Saturday and Sunday, flights are scheduled to pick back up Monday and Tuesday. The numbers include airline, military and some private flights.

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The Transportation Security Administration expects to screen more than 14 million passengers from Friday through Wednesday, up nearly 11% over the same weekend last year.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske warned that at times it could take more than 30 minutes to get through security and more than 10 minutes in PreCheck lanes, “so we encourage you to arrive early, pack your patience.” The agency recommended that travelers get to the airport two hours before their flight.

AAA said bookings for domestic travel — flights, hotels, rental cars, and cruises — are running 4% higher than Labor Day last year. The auto club and insurance seller said international bookings are up a staggering 44% now that COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, with the top destinations being Vancouver, Rome, London, Dublin, and Paris.

Gasoline prices are similar to last year. The nationwide average was $3.83 a gallon on Wednesday, a penny less than a year ago, AAA reported.

On many planes this weekend, every seat is expected to be filled, capping a busy summer.

American Airlines expects to carry nearly 3.5 million passengers on about 32,000 flights between Thursday and next Tuesday. United Airlines is predicting its biggest Labor Day weekend ever, with nearly 2.8 million passengers in that same six-day stretch.

TSA figures show that the number of travelers going through U.S. airport checkpoints in August is 2% higher than in August 2019, before the pandemic.

The good news for travelers is that the rate of canceled flights is down about 19% from last summer, according to data from tracking service FlightAware. Still, the 1.8% cancellation rate since June 1 is a tick higher than during the same period in 2019, and flights delays are even more common than last summer.

Weather has accounted for about three-fourths of all airline delays this year, according to the FAA, but at other times the volume of flights has been too much for FAA air traffic control centers, many of which are understaffed.

Travelers have enjoyed a bit of a break from last year's skyrocketing airfares. The average fare for a domestic flight in July was down 9% from June and 19% from last July, according to the government's consumer price index. However, the index sample is skewed toward discount airlines — the biggest airlines have reported that their prices are closer to 2022 levels.