AAA predicts 53.4 million people in the U.S. will hit the road — and ride the skies — this Thanksgiving holiday, up 13% from 2020 and the single-biggest year increase since 2005.
This brings travel volumes within 5% of pre-pandemic levels in 2019, with air travel almost completely recovering from its dramatic fall during the pandemic, up 80% over last year, AAA spokeswoman Ellen Edmonds said earlier this month.
It amounts to 6.4 million more people traveling this Thanksgiving than in 2020. Despite gas costing over a dollar more per gallon than it did this time last year, 90% of people plan to travel by car as their preferred mode of travel, AAA said.
Jeff Wadekamper, director of the Helena Regional Airport, said flights in and out of the airport so far this week were carrying “pretty good loads.”
“The flights are going to be very full,” he said. “Things are looking good and it will be a busy week for us.”
However, the local numbers will be about 28% less than 2019 pre-pandemic levels, when the airport had seven flights in and out per day.
That figure has since been cut to five, Wadekamper said, noting that airlines have reduced service nationally, in part due to a pilot shortage.
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He also noted that travel by government employees traveling for business is also far below what it was in 2019.
Still, he expected 300-400 people a day to go through the terminal during the holiday weekend. COVID-19 mask mandates are still in effect in the terminal and on airlines.
The Montana Highway Patrol will have DUI enforcement shifts operating in many counties as well as specific enforcement plans statewide, especially in high-crash corridors, Sgt. Jay Nelson said.
Gasoline was listed at $3.375 a gallon in Lewis and Clark County on the AAA website. That's about $1.15 more than a year ago.
The National Weather Service in Great Falls said a system moving through the area Tuesday and Wednesday may produce 2-4 inches of snow on higher-elevation passes.
Meteorologist Matt Ludwig said there will be high winds in some parts of the state, such as the Rocky Mountain Front, the northeast side of the Highwoods and the Little Belts.
“People traveling locally may have some high winds to contend with,” he said.
The forecast for the Helena area shows it will be mostly sunny Wednesday, with a high near 37 degrees. Thanksgiving Day will be mostly cloudy, with a high near 46. Friday and Saturday will be mostly cloudy, with a high in the lower 50s. Sunday will be partly sunny, with a high near 55.
AAA said travelers listed these U.S. cities as top destinations for Thanksgiving: Orlando, Anaheim, New York, Dallas and Phoenix.
International destinations include Cancun, Mexico; Montego Bay, Jamaica; Aruba, Aruba; Los Cabos, Mexico; and Nassau, Bahamas.
Assistant editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.