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The travel chaos to expect over the July Fourth weekend

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

On your way out of town for the holiday weekend? Well, you probably already know you're not alone. Tens of millions of Americans are traveling, some for the first time since the pandemic began. And that means a lot of traffic, long lines at airports and flight delays. NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: At this gas station just outside of Chicago off of Interstate 94, a steady stream of drivers pulls in to fill their tanks, but not necessarily because they're heading out of town this weekend.

Getting on the road?

JUSTIN WILSON: Definitely not. It's just too expensive. I did think about visiting my cousin in Ohio, and of course I was going to drive there, but, as you can see, that says $100, and this is a sedan, so (laughter) - you know?

SCHAPER: Thirty-one-year-old Justin Wilson of Chicago says he's just going to hang around town this weekend.

As for 56-year-old Lisa Aguilos' plans?

LISA AGUILOS: Nothing. We're just going to stay home because - see how much I'm paying?

SCHAPER: How much is that?

AGUILOS: Eighty-six dollars for 12.5 gallons. We'll be staying home - cook something, barbecue something - and that's it.

SCHAPER: But tens of millions of other Americans are hitting the road for the weekend despite the high gas prices.

ANDREW GROSS: We're looking at about 48 million people who are going to travel, which is almost up to pre-pandemic numbers.

SCHAPER: Andrew Gross of AAA says a record 42 million of them are driving.

GROSS: We were certainly surprised because, given all these high gas prices, you would think that, you know, setting a record this year for the number of people going by car wouldn't be happening, and yet it is.

SCHAPER: Gross says there is just so much pent-up demand to get away and be outdoors that people are willing to pay the high price of gas, which for regular unleaded is averaging 4.84 a gallon right now. And with that record number of people driving this weekend...

BOB PISHU: Traffic congestion is going to be pretty significant, you know, throughout this evening.

SCHAPER: Bob Pishu is with the data analytics firm INRIX, which analyzes traffic patterns. And he says this afternoon and this evening may be the worst of it, but travelers can expect heavy congestion at times into next week. And if you think the roads are going to be bad, airports might be worse.

JOE SCHWIETERMAN: This weekend could be a rough ride - you know? - especially if we have bad weather and that ripple effect from, you know, storms and things.

SCHAPER: Joe Schwieterman is a transportation professor at DePaul University and is tracking the rising number of people flying this summer and the airlines' troubles in meeting that demand, as they've canceled and delayed tens of thousands of flights in recent weeks. He cites a combination of issues, including a shortage of pilots and air-traffic controllers.

SCHWIETERMAN: Yeah, the airlines have, I think, been overly optimistic about their staff situation. And now you throw in what appears to be some pretty significant traffic control issues, you know, with the peaking of demand this weekend, and it's sort of a perfect storm in some ways.

SHARON WILLIAMS: I think everybody - we're back traveling now, and they're ill prepared - totally ill prepared for what's going on now.

SCHAPER: At Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, 66-year-old Sharon Williams is hoping to return home to Milwaukee on Delta, but she's expecting delays because she's had a lot of them recently, and she blames the airline.

WILLIAMS: They got to get better with this. They got to do better.

SCHAPER: Delta took the unusual step of giving passengers a waiver to change flights ahead of the weekend for no charge. Delta and American have had the most delays and cancellations in recent weeks, but other airlines have had significant problems, too. And Europe's airports have also been plagued by chaos. Experts say there's no quick fix. One analyst says we expect it to be a long, tiresome summer for everyone.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.