With pandemic in the rearview mirror, Memorial Day travel expected to boom

Transportation Security Administration worker inspects at passenger at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in February. The airport set records for passenger traffic on Feb. 13, when the Super Bowl and other events were in town, and it expects large crowds for Memorial Day weekend. (Photo by Tia Dufour/Department of Homeland Security)

WASHINGTON – Memorial Day weekend travelers are expected to pack roads and airports at or above pre-pandemic levels this year, with experts saying that an estimated 42.3 million Americans are likely to travel.

Of those, about 887,000 will be from Arizona, according to AAA, a 4% increase over last year’s numbers. The last time the state saw Memorial Day weekend travel volumes this high was in 2005, which holds the record for the busiest Memorial Day holiday travel weekend in Arizona.

Nationally, the number of holiday travelers is expected to grow by 7% over last year.

“This seems to be the most normal travel year we’ve had recently,” said Julian Paredes, a spokesperson for AAA Arizona. “People just seem to be wanting to get out, spend time with their families, go on vacation, even despite inflation and the high cost of gas and things like that.”

The rush to get away started earlier this week, with the Transportation Security Administration on Monday handling 2.6 million passengers, “the busiest air travel day they had seen since February 2020,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said at a Tuesday news conference.

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Buttigieg said the holiday will be a “test to the system” and this his department is working with airlines to avoid the “unacceptable” number of cancellations and flight delays seen in air travel last year. He also said the Federal Aviation Administration is in the process of hiring more air traffic controllers to keep up with the growing summer flight demands.

Officials at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport said they do not provide predictions of future airport traffic, but said they are expecting a busy weekend after a record-breaking first quarter. The airport had its busiest day ever on Feb. 13, amid a slew of sporting and music events in the Valley, followed by its busiest month ever in March. Sky Harbor spokesperson Eric Everts said Memorial Day weekend will be no different.

“With our numbers that we’ve been releasing, we expect it to continue to surpass pre-pandemic levels,.” Everts said. “I can’t say exactly how many are going to be coming through, but we’ve been seeing the trend that it’s going to be busier than usual.”

Everts said Sky Harbor, which has about 125,000 passengers on an average day, is prepared to handle any holiday influx of passengers. Goodyear and Deer Valley airports, which often handle overflow traffic from Sky Harbor, are not expecting additional traffic this weekend, he said.

Tucson International Airport expects a 10% increase in holiday weekend passengers over last year, said airport spokesperson Craig Reck, with 58,233 passengers expected from Thursday to Tuesday, peaking at 10,638 passengers on Monday.

“It should be pretty similar to Memorial Day 2019, which is awesome to see,” Reck said.

But Paredes said most Arizonans who travel for Memorial Day will drive: AAA predicts 770,000 people will drive to their holiday destinations, more than 10 times the expected 76,000 fliers. That is reflected nationally, where 37.1 million of the projected 42 million travelers will drive.

Evening commuters head west toward downtown Phoenix. Travel experts expect heavy traffic this weekend as the number of people traveling for Memorial Day weekend returns to pre-pandemic levels. (File photo by Jessica Clark/Cronkite News)

AAA said the busiest times to drive this weekend – in Arizona and nationally – will be between noon and 6 p.m., with 3-6 p.m. the most concentrated rush hour.

To make room for holiday drivers, the Arizona Department of Transportation said it has canceled “any full construction or maintenance closures along state highways” from Friday afternoon through Monday night.

At Lake Havasu City, Go Lake Havasu CEO and President Terence Concannon said they are “gearing up to have full occupancy at our hotels, all the restaurants are gearing up with specials and the bars are expecting huge numbers in the evenings.”

Concannon said tourism is the number one industry in Lake Havasu City, and Memorial Day weekend makes May one of the strongest months of the year for the city’s economy. Statewide, tourism generated $3.42 billion in taxes in 2021.

“The taxes that tourism generates, be it in rural communities or urban communities, benefits the overall economy of a town or city because those taxes fund a wide range of services that residents in those towns benefit from,” said Josh Coddington, an Arizona Office of Tourism spokesperson.

Sydney Carruth syd-knee kuh-rooth (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Sydney Carruth expects to graduate in the August 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication and has a bachelor’s degree in political science from ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies. Carruth is a money reporter at the Cronkite News Washington, D.C., bureau and has interned at The Arizona Republic as a breaking news reporter.