By Daniel Trotta and Allison Lampert
(Reuters) -Millions of Americans crowded into airports or hit the road on Wednesday ahead of Thanksgiving Day, creating the busiest travel day since the pandemic virtually shut down the tradition of visiting friends and family over the long holiday weekend.
A sprawling storm that brought downpours and gusting winds to much of the eastern U.S. on Tuesday was moving offshore on Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service, easing fears of significant flight delays.
Between Nov. 17 and Nov. 27, U.S. airlines will carry a record high 29.9 million passengers, according to Airlines for America, an industry forecaster, or 9% more than a year earlier and up 1.7 million passengers from the levels seen before the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, 2.6 million passengers were screened at airport security checkpoints, the highest ever for a Tuesday before Thanksgiving, according to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. Wednesday was expected to be even busier.
As of midday on Wednesday, the major U.S. airlines had few flight cancellations, boding well for the rest of the day, said Mike Arnot, a spokesperson for aviation analytics company Cirium.
On Wednesday afternoon, a vehicle exploded at the Rainbow Bridge connecting the United States and Canada at Niagara Falls, prompting authorities to shut down all four crossings between western New York and Ontario.
Buffalo Niagara International Airport was closed to international flights, and domestic travelers were subject to enhanced screening, airport officials said, including security checks of all vehicles entering the airport.
On the highways, the American Automobile Association expects 55.4 million travelers to head 50 miles (80 km) or more away from home from Wednesday to Sunday, up 2.3% over last year. That is the third highest since the motorists group began tracking holiday travel in 2000 – though still lower than the number recorded in 2019, before COVID shut down the country.
Falling gasoline prices and airfares have made travel more affordable as inflation has eased. Gas prices have dropped 15% since mid-September, according to GasBuddy, a tracking website, while the travel site Hopper showed that flights for Thanksgiving week were 14% cheaper than last year.
The two major airports in Houston, Texas were expecting to shatter their record of air travelers from Nov. 16-28. Some 2.4 million people were expected to fly through Houston, up 11% from that period in 2022, the airports’ management said.
Most of the severe weather that dropped inches of rain across the Eastern seaboard was expected to clear by Thursday, when millions of Americans will gather for the traditional turkey meal and watch American football on TV.
A “white Thanksgiving” was still likely for parts of New England, the National Weather Service said, where some New Hampshire towns woke up on Wednesday to as much as six inches (15 cm) of snow.
Out West, a snowstorm in the northern and central Rocky Mountains and adjacent High Plans will likely affect Thanksgiving travel from Wednesday night through Friday, the weather service said.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Allison Lampert; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax, Gabriella Borter; Editing by Miral Fahmy, Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)