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Showers, cheap gas fuel Arkansas holiday road trips

by Staff

It’ll be a rainy Christmas weekend across Arkansas, according to the National Weather Service.

But it’ll be warm, with highs in the 60s for much of the state.

Arkansas has the third cheapest gas prices in the country — averaging $2.70 a gallon for regular — so many people will be hitting the road for the holidays.

AAA projects 115.2 million travelers nationally will head 50 miles or more from home over the 10-day year-end holiday travel period from Saturday through Jan. 1. The vast majority of them — about 103.6 million — will be driving to their destinations.

For AAA’s West South Central Region — which includes Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas — 11.5 million are expected to travel more than 50 miles from home, with 10.7 million of those people traveling by automobile.

The overall U.S. travel forecast is a 2.2% increase over last year and the second highest year-end travel forecast since 2000 when AAA began tracking holiday travel.

2019 remains the busiest Christmas and New Year’s travel period on record, with 119 million travelers.

“This year-end holiday forecast, with an additional 2.5 million travelers compared to last year, mirrors what AAA Travel has been observing throughout 2023,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel. “More Americans are investing in travel, despite the cost, to make memories with loved ones and experience new places.”

The only states with cheaper average gas prices than Arkansas are Mississippi at $2.66 per gallon and Texas at $2.69 per gallon.

“The national average for a gallon of gas fell to a 2023 low of $3.06 on Dec. 18, only to rebound six cents to $3.12,” according to AAA. “This marks the first weekly increase since September.”

While “showers” are forecast for Arkansas, “heavy rainfall and flash flash flooding” will continue to affect areas of southern California through today, with the threat gradually expanding into the Southwest, according to the National Weather Service’s forecast on Thursday.

“Unusually mild temperatures across the Plains and Midwest will persist into the early part of the Christmas holiday weekend,” according to the Weather Service. “Areas farther east across the central and eastern U.S. will be seeing generally very mild temperatures through the remainder of the week and into the start of the Christmas holiday weekend, with areas of the Plains and Midwest in particular seeing temperatures that will be as much as 15 to 25 degrees above normal. … Expect these warmer temperatures to begin overspreading the Ohio Valley and Mid-South, with at least above normal temperatures reaching the East Coast.”

AAA predicts 7.5 million Americans will be traveling by air this holiday season, an increase over 2019’s record of 7.3 million passengers.

“Airports are expected to be the busiest they’ve ever been over the Christmas and New Year’s travel period,” according to AAA.

Average airfare ticket prices are slightly lower than last year. According to AAA booking data, the average price for a round-trip ticket to Orlando this holiday season is $613, down from $735 last year.

The Federal Aviation Administration predicted that most fliers would take off Thursday, making it the busiest day of the “Christmas week” for air travel, with 48,959 flights. The FAA said the next highest travel day will be today with 43,953 flights, followed by Tuesday, with 41,028 flights.

Airports in Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas are both expecting to see a 12% increase in passengers for the holiday travel period from Dec. 17 through Jan. 2, said Patricia Mancha, a regional spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration.

That amounts to an estimated 56,164 people flying out of Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field during that time period, according to Shane Carter, the airport’s director of public affairs and governmental relations.

And it amounts to about 43,000 flying out of the Northwest Arkansas National Airport near Highfill, said Mancha.

Millions of passengers are expected to go through Transportation Security Administration screenings nationwide during the holiday period.

“Our No. 1 travel tip is to arrive early,” said Mancha. “Two hours and three prior to domestic and international flights respectively. We’re expecting lots of travelers and ask people to do their part.”

“Clinton National staff and our airline partners are working diligently to accommodate travelers during this busy time of year,” said Carter, “We encourage passengers to eliminate travel pressure by allowing plenty of time to park, check bags, go through security screening, and arrive early at the gate.”

Despite a major increase in flights this year, delays and cancellations remain lower than even pre-pandemic levels, according to the FAA.

Over the past year, airlines have blamed many of their delays on a shortage of FAA air traffic controllers that slows down traffic, according to the Associated Press. The FAA said it has been hiring and now has 10,700 certified controllers.

So far this year, airlines have canceled 1.2% of U.S. flights, down nearly half from 2.1% over the same period last year, the Associated Press reported. Cancellations were well below 1% during Thanksgiving, according to FlightAware.

“I don’t want to jinx us, but so far 2023 has seen the lowest cancellation rate in the last five years,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Tuesday. He added, however, that winter weather “will certainly be a challenge in the next few weeks.”

Canceled flights surged last year, as airlines were caught short-staffed when travel rebounded from the pandemic more quickly than expected. Since then, U.S. airlines have hired thousands of pilots, flight attendants and other workers, and the cancellation rate has come down.

The number of people traveling by other modes — such as bus, train, and cruise ship — is projected to surpass 2019. AAA predicts that more than 4 million Americans will take alternative transportation over Christmas and New Year’s compared with 3.66 million in 2022 and 3.89 million in 2019.

“This holiday season, many travelers are heading to warm weather destinations like Florida and the Caribbean, tourist hot spots like New York and Las Vegas, and European cities like London and Rome,” according to AAA.

    Travelers walk through the short-term parking lot at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field in Little Rock on Thursday in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

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