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Winter holiday travel will be back with a vengeance, travel groups predict

By Pete Muntean and Gregory Wallace, CNN

So you’ll be home for Christmas? It looks like a lot of people are telling their families “you can plan on me.”

New projections say winter holiday travel is about to roar back with a vengeance.

AAA estimates more than 109 million Americans will travel over the long Christmas and New Year’s week — a number approaching the pre-pandemic record 119 million travelers of Christmas 2019.

The AAA predictions are from December 23 to January 2.

For the more than 100 million people who AAA predicts will drive, gas prices are slumping from highs reached around Thanksgiving. The national average dipped to $3.30 on Tuesday, down from $3.41 a month ago.

AAA said it believes gas prices “are unlikely to have a significant impact on the return of auto travel,” and the US Energy Information Administration said last week that it expects gas prices to drop below $3 a gallon on average for 2022.

At the airports

Airlines are projected to carry 6.4 million passengers, AAA said. That’s about triple the number from last year when the pandemic significantly curtailed holiday travel.

Transportation Security Administrator David Pekoske predicted on Monday that the Christmas rush will be busy, but that the single busiest travel day of 2021 has already passed: the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The Transportation Security Administration reported screening 2,451,300 people on November 28. It was about 85% of the volume screened on the same day in 2019, before the pandemic.

Pekoske predicted December 23 and January 3 will be the busiest days of the winter holiday season.

The Sunday and Monday after Christmas will see “a convergence of travelers returning home from Christmas trips and heading out for New Year’s vacations.”

United: Get ready for a rush

United Airlines said it’s preparing for holiday travel this month to be even busier than the Thanksgiving rush, which set a pandemic-era record.

The airline said it expects to carry an average of 420,000 passengers daily, up from the 400,000 daily it carried around Thanksgiving. That’s about 8 million passengers for its holiday period, which United sets from December 16 through January 3.

The airline said it will run 200 additional flights daily to handle the increased loads.

United warns the Thursday before Christmas (December 23) will be the single busiest day of this season.

The travel app Hopper also expects December 23 to be the busiest flying day, and it told CNN Travel in an email that the top domestic destinations booked by their customers are New York City, Orlando and Los Angeles.

Under scrutiny over meltdowns

Airlines, meanwhile, are under scrutiny from Washington after scheduling meltdowns earlier this year left masses of travelers stranded.

Airlines such as Spirit, Southwest and American blamed factors including weather problems and scaling up from pandemic-era lows.

Executives from the nation’s four largest carriers are scheduled to testify before a Senate committee on Wednesday about how they used their shares of more than $50 billion in federal aid to keep aviation employees on the job.

The head of American Airlines is expected to tell lawmakers that the carrier is “aggressively onboarding new hires” to ward off a repeat of thousands of flight cancellations this fall.

“The return of demand for air travel has been intense,” wrote American Airlines CEO Doug Parker in testimony submitted Monday to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

“Like other airlines, we have experienced some operational challenges in recent months, which we have worked to manage as deftly as possible and with the utmost care for our customers and team members,” Parker said.

Should I stay or should I go?

While many people are predicted to get their move on, others might be asking: What about Omicron?

The new variant, designated a “variant of concern” over the Thanksgiving travel period, adds an extra layer of uncertainty as people prepare for December and January trips.

If you’re vaccinated, you shouldn’t have to change your holiday plans — even with Omicron circulating in the United States, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“If you have a vaccinated situation, your family is vaccinated, enjoy the holidays indoors with your family,” Fauci said on a CNN Global Town Hall on December 1.

CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen said that whether to travel or not is a personal calculation.

“There are a lot of unknowns, so I think that depends on people’s individual risk tolerance. There will be some people who are OK with the unknowns and who are generally healthy, fully vaccinated and aren’t that worried,” said Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

“But there are other people who because of their own medical situation or because of risk factors might feel differently.”

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Correction: A previous version of this story cited an incorrect date for the TSA’s pandemic-era record. Top image: Travelers queue up at a security checkpoint at Denver International Airport on Tuesday, November 23, 2021. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) CNN’s Marnie Hunter, Matt Egan and Forrest Brown contributed to this article.

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