Fewer people flying but more people traveling over Memorial Day, AAA says

Thursday, May 16th 2002, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ More Americans will travel this Memorial Day weekend than last year's, but fewer will fly, the AAA said Thursday.

Marking the start of the first summer travel season since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the former American Automobile Association said 35.2 million U.S. travelers are expected to go at least 50 miles from home on the holiday weekend. That's a 1 percent boost from the 34.9 million who traveled during the same period last year.

``AAA is optimistic that this summer should not only be better than last year but that the travel industry truly is on the road to recovery,'' AAA Travel Vice President Sandra Hughes said. ``Americans are moving past 9-11 and are looking to resume their normal travel habits.''

Air travel, however, will continue to lag. The AAA expects 4.1 million airline passengers over the Memorial Day weekend, down 7 percent from the 4.4 million who flew in 2001, before the terrorist attacks.

The Air Transport Association reported that 43.7 million passengers flew the major U.S. airlines last month, down 13 percent over the 50.3 million who flew in April 2001. From January to April, air travel is down 12 percent over the same four-month period in 2001, the major airlines' trade group said.

About 29.3 million Americans will take to the road, up 2 percent over the 28.7 million who drove in 2001, the AAA said.

The survey was conducted for AAA by the Travel Industry Association of America, which phoned 1,300 adults.

A similar survey by American Express, which operates travel agencies and sells travelers' checks, also found more Americans ready to hit the road this summer. The company telephoned 1,006 adults and found 54 percent of respondents saying they would travel as much this year as they did before the terrorist attacks, and another 25 percent saying they would travel more.

``We're pleased to hear that consumers are once again feeling comfortable about travel,'' said American Express' vice president for leisure travel, Lisa Vehrenkamp. ``Americans are saying they will be traveling as much or more than they did last year.''

The AAA's Hughes said gasoline prices would remain steady at around $1.40 per gallon, after a large increase during the past two months, and could even drop a few pennies. A year ago at this time, motorists were paying an average of $1.72 per gallon.

``Currently, all regions of the country are well-supplied and there are no known refinery or distribution problems,'' Hughes said.

But Hughes warned that increased summer driving, political turmoil in Venezuela and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East could all help push prices higher this summer. Hughes said prices were expected to reach $1.50 to $1.55 a gallon by July 4.

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