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US summer travel boom starts, 700 customs officers redeployed

New York

A ROBUST economy has put Americans in the mood to travel this summer.

According to American Automobile Association (AAA), nearly 43 million people are expected to take to the roads, rails and skies this Memorial Day weekend. That is an increase of 1.5 million over last year, and the second-highest volume since AAA began tracking numbers in 2000.

In the Washington region, AAA Mid-Atlantic estimates that nearly 3.2 million people will travel more than 50 miles (80 km) from home during the three-day weekend. Despite an increase in petrol prices, most people will drive. The number of travellers hopping on buses, trains and cruise ships also is on the rise.

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"Americans are eagerly anticipating the start of summer, and expensive gas prices won't keep them home this Memorial Day weekend," said Paula Twidale, vice-president of AAA Travel. "Consumer spending remains strong, helped by solid job and income growth."

That trend is expected to continue through the summer. Airlines for America (A4A), an industry trade group, said that it expects more than 257 million people to fly between June 1 and the end of August - up 3.4 per cent from the same period last year.

Officials with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are also preparing for a busy travel season. The agency is projecting that 263 million passengers and crew will pass through security checkpoints nationwide between the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. That is about 10 million more than last summer. The agency said that on peak days, it could screen more than 2.7 million people.

The projections are welcome news for an industry grappling with rising fuel prices and fallout from the worldwide grounding of Boeing's 737 Max jets following two deadly crashes in less than five months.

While the tragedies do not appear to have dampened the enthusiasm for air travel, they have put airlines in a tough spot.

A4A said that airlines have cancelled roughly 200 daily flights this summer - a loss of about 35,000 seats a day. American, United and Southwest, which combined have 72 of the Max jets in their fleets, said that the planes will remain out of service for much of the summer.

While airlines said that they have reached out to affected passengers, travellers should still check their flights ahead of time, in case of last-minute changes. Many airlines have been able to replace 737 Max aircraft with other jets in their fleets, but that could become more challenging during the peak summer travel season. Other airlines have cancelled flights on less popular routes.

There is no timetable for when the aircraft might be cleared to return to service.

The crisis at the nation's southern border may also impact summer travellers, particularly those who are planning international getaways.

The Trump administration has already redeployed more than 700 US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers to the border to deal with the surge in migrant crossings, and has plans to send more. CBP officials said that most of the personnel came from northern border ports, seaports and airports.

"While the current south-west border security and humanitarian crisis is impacting CBP operations, we are working to mitigate the effects as much as possible," CBP said in a statement.

Even so, in a letter to Senate leaders, A4A, along with five other aviation and travel industry groups, said that the situation cannot continue.

"With international travel increasing at a steady rate, lack of sufficient CBP officer staffing at airports due to temporary reassignment, compounded with a lack of overtime funding, will certainly put considerable strain on CBP ports, harming both passengers and cargo throughout," the groups wrote.

Officials are encouraging travellers to arrive early for their flights or take advantage of programmes such as Global Entry, which allows preapproved travellers to move more quickly through customs. TSA officials are advising passengers to arrive two hours early for domestic flights and three hours in advance for international departures.

However, they emphasised that the advice is not tied to the border deployments, but rather to the expected increase in travellers.

TSA also recommended enrolling in its PreCheck programme, which allows prescreened travellers to use special lines. PreCheck travellers do not have to take off their shoes or remove items such as their laptops from their carry-on bags.

Further fuelling concerns about security and waiting times at airports is the Trump administration's plan to also deploy TSA personnel to the border. The move has raised concerns, particularly among Democrats, about the impact on airport security.

"We are deeply concerned that pulling hundreds of TSA employees away from their critical missions at our nation's airports and sending them to the southern border will weaken aviation security and significantly increase the risks faced by the American people," Representative Elijah Cummings, chair of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Representative Stephen Lynch wrote in a letter to TSA administrator David Pekoske.

TSA officials, however, said that they are prepared. The agency has hired an additional 2,000 officers to handle the expected surge in travellers, has increased overtime funds by 20 per cent, and is deploying additional canine teams. They added that the deployments will involve less than one per cent of the agency's 60,000-member workforce. WP