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Traveling over the Fourth of July weekend? So is everyone else

More than 50 million Americans are expected to travel at least 50 miles from home over the upcoming July Fourth weekend. Traffic in Austin, Texas, is seen here in April.
Brandon Bell
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Getty Images
More than 50 million Americans are expected to travel at least 50 miles from home over the upcoming July Fourth weekend. Traffic in Austin, Texas, is seen here in April.

Updated June 30, 2023 at 2:33 PM ET

It seems perfect — the Fourth of July falls on a Tuesday this year, allowing for a nice long weekend to get away. But it might be a little too perfect: Record-setting numbers of people are predicted to travel in the coming days.

AAA, the auto association, is projecting record-breaking travel volumes for the holiday weekend. The numbers are eye-popping: More than 50 million Americans are expected to travel 50 miles or more from home this weekend.

Most folks will be driving, with 43.2 million people projected to hit the road. Another 4.17 million will likely fly. And more than 3.3 million are predicted to travel by bus, cruise or train.

"A lot of people are going to be traveling, and that's despite high ticket prices, despite inflation. People still have that desire to get out of town and do something fun," AAA spokesperson Aixa Diaz told NPR.

Expect packed roadways

Friday is expected to be the busiest day on the road, with traffic on Sunday and Monday looking considerably lighter. AAA counts the holiday weekend as stretching from Friday, June 30, to Tuesday, July 4.

Many of the routes that AAA predicts to be most congested are between cities and nearby beaches: New York City to the Jersey Shore; Boston to Hyannis, Mass.; Washington, D.C., to Rehoboth Beach, Del.; Houston to Galveston, Texas; Portland to Cannon Beach, Oregon.

One factor encouraging drivers is that gas prices have come down considerably from this time last year, when the national average was $4.85 a gallon. "This year we're looking at a national average of about $3.50-ish," says Diaz. "That's good news for drivers who are getting out of town."

Why so busy? Pent-up demand

People have been flying with a vengeance as the COVID-19 pandemic moves into the rearview. The 4.17 million Americans projected to fly over the holiday weekend is an 11.2% increase over the same weekend last summer — and 6.6% higher than in 2019, before the pandemic began.

"Demand for travel is very strong. We've seen it rising each year as the pandemic has sort of neared the end, and 2023 has just been huge for travel," says Diaz.

In May, industry group Airlines for America predicted that U.S. airlines would carry an all-time record 257 million passengers this summer, from June through August.

Travel went rather smoothly over the recent Memorial Day weekend. But there are reasons to worry that airports could get snarled in the days ahead.

People queue for rescheduled flights at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey on Tuesday.
Kena Betancur / Getty Images
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Getty Images
People queue for rescheduled flights at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey on Tuesday.

Air travel could get messy

There has been a raft of canceled flights in recent days, particularly on United Airlines. The airline canceled thousands of flights over the past week as bad weather caused problems at New York-area airports. United's CEO blamed air traffic control staffing shortages at the Federal Aviation Administration; the flight attendants' union pointed to the airline's internal problems scheduling crews.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told NPR's Morning Edition on Friday that air traffic control staffing issues were not the main cause of the cancellations.

"They're not even the No. 2 cause of these delays," he said. "By yesterday, the cancellation rate across the system, except for United, was back to 2%, which you'd basically consider to be a normal level. They [United] were about 10 times that."

Another factor affecting air travel could be an aviation deadline related to 5G. Buttigieg sent a letter to airlines last week warning that flights could be disrupted because some planes aren't prepared with the right equipment to handle interference from 5G signals that will see their power boosted on July 1. New radio altimeters are required to protect from interference from wireless company transmissions.

Buttigieg says the airlines have known for the last year and a half that they need to update their technology. "The majority of the fleet has been upgraded, but there are still a lot of planes out there that have not," he told NPR.

But he says the FAA will not allow anything unsafe to happen, "which means some of those aircraft may be restricted from operating at certain airports under low visibility conditions. If that happens, we are instructing the airlines to make sure to deal with that in terms of realistic scheduling," Buttigieg said.

American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines told The Associated Press that all their planes have been retrofitted and that they don't expect any problems. United said its "mainline" jets were ready but deferred questions about its United Express planes to its regional carriers.

Delta Air Lines told the AP that some 190 of the more than 900 planes in its fleet won't have the updated equipment by the deadline, meaning there could be restrictions on operating those planes in bad weather. The airline said it would route the planes to minimize disruption.

Airlines for America (A4A), a trade group representing the airlines, said in a statement to NPR that its member carriers "are working diligently to ensure fleets are equipped with compliant radio altimeters, but global supply chains continue to lag behind current demand. Carriers have repeatedly communicated this reality to the government. ... Nevertheless, thanks to careful planning, A4A member carriers are confident in their ability to maintain the integrity of their schedules, despite the impending deadline."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.