1 of 3 | It's expected to be a busy travel period over the upcoming July 4 holiday, though road trips could take a back seat to air-travel. AAA is expecting air travel to be levels not seen in 20 years. File photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo
June 29 (UPI) -- Travel during the upcoming July 4 holiday is expected to be a record-setter but high demand and other issues may disrupt air travel.
Travel club AAA said it expects just more than 50 million people in the United States to travel more than 50 miles during the upcoming holiday, which falls on a Tuesday this year. That would set a record should the forecast prove accurate.
AAA said anticipates air travel to increase by 11.2% from last year and by 6.6% from 2019 levels, prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The share of air travelers in the overall holiday forecast this year is an impressive 8.2% -- the highest percentage in nearly 20 years," it said.
Travel levels as measured by the number of people passing through security checkpoints on Tuesday were relative to pre-pandemic levels, though airlines may be struggling to keep pace with the surge seen since restrictions were in place.
This time in 2020, around 500,000 people passed through security checkpoints, compared with 2.4 million on Monday. Travel, however, has been delayed because of a shortage of air-traffic controllers and recent inclement weather.
Data from flight tracker FlightAware showed a total of 1,198 flights within, into, or out of the United States were canceled on Wednesday with another 7,032 delayed, the third consecutive day of near or more than 10,000 combined delays and cancellations as major hubs such as Chicago's O'Hare and New York's JFK International continued to struggle with severe weather and a surge of demand.
As of Thursday morning another 512 flights had already been delayed with 350 canceled.
The National Weather Service continues to point to excessive heat in the U.S. South, while states east of the Mississippi could see rain during the upcoming holiday.
Several states in the Midwest have also been plagued by smoke from Canadian wildfires that is expected to travel east to New York.
Those looking for a long road trip, however, can take comfort in lower gasoline prices. During the Memorial Day holiday last month, AAA had predicted a 6% increase in road travel from last year due to lower prices at the pump.
Federal data show the national average retail price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline averaged $4.77 on July 4 last year, though price trends were actually moving lower from the peak level of $5.01 from mid-June.
When adjusting for inflation, retail gasoline prices are about 30 cents lower than at this time in 2019.
"It certainly feels pre-pandemic," said Patrick DeHaan, the senior petroleum analyst at Chicago-based GasBuddy. "But I'm not sure that travel forecasts will lead to a major surge in gasoline demand."
Federal data show 9.2 million barrels per day of gasoline were sent to the market on average during the four-week period to June 16, a proxy for implied demand. That's about a half-million bpd lower than the comparable week in 2019.
DeHaan says he's not expecting to see a surge above pre-pandemic demand levels anytime soon, even with some relief at the pump.
He said trends in gas prices should continue to work in the consumer's favor given that broader commodities are stuck in something of a range-bound pattern.
Right now, only Mississippi has a state-level average below $3 per gallon, though more states in the U.S. South could follow suit as the July 4 holiday approaches.