Lower gas prices, improving economy brighten Thanksgiving travel forecast

Need another encouraging sign that the U.S. economy is slowly on the mend?

Look to this year’s Thanksgiving holiday travel forecasts.

AAA predicts that 43.6 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the holiday weekend, up almost 1 percent over the 43.3 million who traveled last year.

That’s the fourth consecutive year for holiday travel growth since 2008, when Thanksgiving travel plummeted 25 percent as the economy tanked. AAA defines the holiday period as Wednesday through Sunday.

Nationally, 90 percent of travelers will take to the road rather than fly, up about half a percent.

The Midwest is likely to mimic the nation’s modest improvement, said Mike Right, a spokesman for AAA in Missouri and eastern Kansas.

“Certainly the economy has improved somewhat in recent months,” he said. “Consumer confidence is up over what it was last year.”

But because Thanksgiving is such a family-oriented holiday, people often find a way to get to Grandma’s house even if they’re still pinching pennies and have to economize in other ways.

“People will go pretty much regardless of their economic condition unless they’re in really bad shape,” Right said.

One major piece of good news that’s likely to encourage travel is the recent drop in gasoline prices after sky high rates this summer.

“We’d had weeks and weeks of record high prices, so we’re in good shape right now,” Right said.

Missouri and Kansas have enjoyed some of the biggest price declines per gallon of any states in the nation, down more than 60 cents per gallon since mid-September. Prices in Kansas City are expected to average $3.04 per gallon, compared to $3.13 at this time last year, Right said.

But this year’s travel indicators aren’t enough to send champagne corks flying.

While overall travel will go up slightly this holiday, the increase isn’t as dramatic as it was in 2010 and 2011, when demand grew by 6 percent or more. It will take a much more robust economy to spark a significant increase in travel, according to the AAA forecast.

“Despite mild improvements in unemployment, the housing market and greater consumer optimism, the economy is still struggling to keep its head above water,” the agency said.

For those traveling by plane, airports will be busier, and planes will be packed, according to Airlines for America, the nation’s leading airline trade association.

The association expected almost 24 million people to fly between Nov. 16 and Nov. 27, up about 150,000 over last year. But that’s 10 percent below the peak holiday air travel periods in 2006 and 2007.

"The forecasted modest growth this year reflects perceptions that the economy is slowly improving," said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America.

But while motorists may enjoy better prices at the gas pump, airlines are dealing with record fuel prices. So they’ll be trying to maximize profits by matching plane capacity to demand, meaning planes full to the gills.

The peak travel day nationally for airline travel will be the Sunday after Thanksgiving, with 2.4 million passengers. Other busy days will be the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Monday after Thanksgiving, with 2.3 million passengers.

While Airlines for America doesn’t forecast fares, AAA’s leisure travel index predicted lower fares than last year. The lowest round-trip rate is $188 for the top 40 U.S. air routes, down 11 percent from last year, according to AAA.

Hotel rates are expected to be flat compared to last year, but weekend daily rental car rates will be significantly higher, up from an average of $37 last year to $47 this year.

At KCI, about 320,000 people are expected to pass through the airport from Wednesday through Sunday. That’s on par with last year but far below the peak year of 2001.

Wednesday will be the busiest travel day at KCI, and Thursday the lightest for the holiday period.

“It’s the biggest holiday period for the year, but it’s not going to be a record breaker,” said Tom McKenna, the Kansas City Aviation Department’s marketing director. Planes will be packed at KCI, but there will be fewer of them. Airlines have been consistently cutting their flights at KCI in recent years; for example, Frontier Airlines used to serve 13 destinations from KCI and now serves three.

While some noticeable changes are coming to the terminals at KCI, they won’t occur until after the holiday, probably in early December. At that time, the gates that previously were used by Continental Airlines in Terminal C will move to the United Airlines area of Terminal A, allowing for a modest renovation of Terminal C, which also serves international flights.