Memorial Day weekend is upon us, kicking off the busy summer vacation season, and airlines are forecasting that this could be their busiest summer ever. Industry projections indicate that despite relatively high airfares, U.S. airlines could carry a record number of passengers this summer, even though they're still operating fewer flights than before the pandemic.
The coming months are likely to be a "stress test" for a national aviation system plagued by recent staffing shortages, antiquated technology, air traffic control problems, scheduling issues and labor disputes.
After widespread flight delays and cancellations last year, consumer advocates and some within the travel industry worry air travelers could face similar disruptions that will mess up their summer travel plans again.
If you're among those hoping to jet off to somewhere fun this summer, here's what you can expect.
"This summer's travel demand will be as strong as we've seen since before the pandemic and potentially the strongest ever," says Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, which represents airlines, hotels and other travel-related businesses.
The crush of travelers starts Memorial Day weekend, with AAA forecasting that about 3.4 million Americans will be flying this Thursday through Monday.
Including the numbers of commercial airline flights and those on smaller general aviation aircraft, there will be more than 313,000 flights over the seven-day holiday period from May 24 to May 30, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. While that is just below pre-pandemic 2019 levels, the airlines may actually be flying more people by using bigger planes than they normally would on many routes.
The FAA projects that this Thursday will be the busiest day of the Memorial Day weekend, with more than 51,000 flights forecast.
Among the commercial airlines, United is predicting this Memorial Day weekend will be its busiest in more than a decade. Delta expects a whopping 17% increase in passengers from last year.