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Thanksgiving travel: ‘The roads are going to be busy’ despite surging gas prices, AAA analyst says

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AAA Northeast Senior Manager Robert Sinclair discusses the promising seasonal outlook the travel industry and prominent airlines are looking at the holiday season with.

Video transcript

- Welcome back. Traveling this Thanksgiving? Get ready for some busy airports and roads, as well. AAA is predicting over 53 million people will be travel traveling later next week, and that is up 13% from last year, the biggest increase since 2005. And here to break it all down, we have Robert Sinclair, the AAA Northeast Senior Manager. Robert, great to see you here. Nice suit.

ROBERT SINCLAIR: Good to see you. Thank you.

- And what should we be-- what should we be expecting over the next week? How hectic is it gonna get?

ROBERT SINCLAIR: It's going to get very, very busy. The roads were already crowded, because so many people have are shunning public transportation for fear of exposure to COVID. So we in the tri-state area, we're at least seeing the-- the highest congestion in our city's history prior to the pandemic. And we're nearly back to pre-pandemic levels nationwide, about 5% of where we were.

So the roads are going to be busy. We're doing-- using INRIX to do anonymous GPS tracking of some of the major roads around the country, and some of them will see 450% more traffic volumes the day before the holiday. And then there's flying. And with the government a couple of weeks ago opening up the nation to overseas travelers from 33 nations as long as they're vaccinated, that should make things even busier. And we're still using a relatively antiquated radar-based air traffic control system when many countries have switched over to GPS. So throw bad weather into the mix, and it's going to be hammered time.

- Robert, we've been talking a lot about how resilient Americans have been consumers have been largely in the face of these price pressures, gas prices obviously going up significantly when you compare it to where things were several months ago. To what extent have you seen the impact of that? Even if people aren't maybe necessarily holding back on travel in this holiday, when do we expect that to-- to start to impact travel overall?

ROBERT SINCLAIR: Well, travel by private motor vehicle for a holiday has always been most popular, anywhere from 80% to 85%. This year, it's 90%. But I think a lot of people are really just biting the bullet because there's just have pent-up wanderlust.

I think back to a survey that we did of drivers in March of 2018, and we asked them what the pain point for gasoline would be. 40% said $3 a gallon. That was during a better economy. So I think that the number is higher as far as the number of drivers is concerned, and the price point is lower as far as the price of gasoline is concerned. But having said that, the price of gasoline usually makes up 10% to 15% of a holiday travel budget, so maybe it's making up 20% more, but folks are just saying, the heck with it, and getting out and hitting the road. Maybe switching over to the more efficient family vehicle-- most families have two-- small economy car and a large SUV-- maybe they'll switch to that small economy car to try and save gas for this particular trip.

- Or get an SUV crossover that's completely electric and cause $100,000. I'm still waiting for that one personally. But I want to switch it over to the airlines, because they've been facing staffing problems, labor shortages like everybody else. Are they able to attract the workers to keep the planes flying this holiday season?

ROBERT SINCLAIR: Well, in fact, some airlines are paying bonuses for people to work over the holidays, Southwest in particular. And the airlines are doing everything they can to make sure that they are ready for this holiday crush. If they're going to be ready, they're going to be ready. And I think they've got everything in place that they possibly could. We'll probably have to wait until after the holiday itself to see if there are any problems that come about. But I think they're doing all that they can to be ready.

And AAA is a travel agency, we've seen a tremendous increase in bookings not only for the rest of this year, but on into next year with international travel proving very popular. People going to Europe in particular for river cruises and Germany especially. So hopefully, they're ready. Lots of folks are ready to travel.

- And that from-- we did hear from the TSA this week saying they anticipate travel at least over the Thanksgiving holiday to return to pre-pandemic levels. To what extent do you think that momentum can carry through into the Christmas, New Year's holiday season, especially given the concerns around a resurgence in these COVID cases?

ROBERT SINCLAIR: Well, I think it will continue as long as COVID allows it to. And with the vaccination rates increasing and overseas nations having to have vaccinated persons come to visit us, I think it will carry on. Travel is very, very strong. People have been cooped up for eight months now, and they're just ready to go. We're seeing that the Caribbean is very popular, most of the major cities around the country. Florida or Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Tampa-- forget about it. Everybody wants to go there now. So this is something that will continue, I think, just as long as the COVID rates permit it. Folks are voting with their wallets voting, with their feet. They're ready to travel.

- Robert Sinclair, AAA Northeast Senior Manager. Good to talk to you today.

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