Americans hit road for holiday in near-record numbers

Americans hit the road in near-record numbers at the start of the Memorial Day weekend, as their eagerness to break free from coronavirus confinement overcame higher prices for flights, gasoline and hotels.

More than 1.8 million people went through U.S. airports Thursday, and the daily number was widely expected to cross 2 million at least once over the long holiday weekend, which would be the highest mark since early March 2020.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned people to expect long lines at airports and appealed for travelers to be patient.

The rise in travel appears to be fueled by an increase in COVID-19 vaccinations as well as an improving economy. The U.S. Commerce Department said consumer spending increased in April, although not as much as in March, showing how consumers are driving a recovery from last year’s pandemic recession.

Hotel room rates nationally jumped 9% in April after an 8% rise in March, and airfares soared 10% in April, according to the latest available figures from the Commerce Department.

That’s not stopping people from getting on planes. The Transportation Security Administration has screened nearly 1.6 million people a day this month, up from 224,000 a day in May 2020 but still down one-third from the same time in 2019. TSA officials said this week they have hired enough new screeners to handle the crowds.

Most of those travelers are taking vacations or visiting family and friends in the United States. Airline executives say domestic leisure travel is back to pre-pandemic levels. Delta Air Lines President Glen Hauenstein said this week that bookings are now running ahead of the 2019 pace.

Business travelers and international visitors are still mostly absent, however, and airlines are eager to see that lucrative business return.

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Associated Press writers John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio; Freida Frisaro in Miami; Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit; and Martin Crutsinger in Washington contributed to this report.