Thanksgiving travel to wane

AAA forecasts a decline in the number of Americans who will travel for the holiday. Bush says U.S. will open military air space in West and Midwest.

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By Aaron Smith, CNNMoney.com staff writer

Which should be the Obama administration's priority?
  • Stimulating the economy
  • Reducing the budget deficit

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The travel organization AAA said on Tuesday that fewer Americans will travel for the Thanksgiving holiday - the first such decline in six years.

About 41 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a decline of 600,000 people, or 1.4%, from last year, said AAA.

The group called it the first decline in Thanksgiving travel since 2002.

"The overall state of the economy continues to present real challenges for some Americans looking to travel this Thanksgiving," said AAA President Robert Darbelnet, in a prepared statement.

The faltering economy has cost 1.2 million jobs this year. As many Americans' spending power has declined, so has their ability to travel.

About 33.2 million Americans, or 81% of the total, are expected to drive this year for the holiday, down 1.2% from last year.

Cash-strapped motorists will face dramatically lower gas prices than they did in 2007. The nationwide average for unleaded gasoline is $2.068, according to AAA, compared to the year-ago average of $3.095.

The travel organization said about 4.54 million, or 11% of the total, plan to travel by airplane, a 7.2% decrease from last year. AAA said that 3.26 million Americans, or 8%, plan to travel by train, bus or other mode of transportation.

More air space for crowded planes

The Air Transport Authority, the industry group for airlines, projects an even steeper decline, of 10%, in the number of air travelers during the Thanksgiving travel season, compared with last year.

Despite the decline in air travelers, the ATA and airline experts said that planes will be more crowded as a result of cuts in airline capacity. Despite recent decreases in fuel prices, the industry has been cutting its least fuel-efficient flights to save money since jet fuel hit record highs this summer.

The Official Airline Guide, a guide for business travelers, expects that the airline industry will cut capacity by 9% during the fourth quarter.

In addition, President Bush announced on Tuesday that military air space will be freed up on the West Coast, the Midwest and the Southwest for commercial flights to alleviate congestion during the Thanksgiving holiday.

"This year, we're going to expand what we call the Thanksgiving express," said Bush, speaking to a gathering of members of the Department of Transportation.

He said the air space expansion will include areas over Los Angeles and Phoenix.

"We are not in the business of managing airlines, but we are in the business of making it easier for airlines to do what they're supposed to do," said Bush.

Bush said he was pleased with the results of last year's Thanksgiving season, when the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration opened up military air space along the East Coast, from Florida to Maine, for commercial air lines.  To top of page

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