NEW YORK — The holiday travel rush hit its peak Friday as mild weather and lower flight cancelation rates raised hopes for merrier drivers and airline passengers than last year.

U.S. airlines are predicting a blockbuster holiday season and have projected confidence they can handle the crowds after hiring thousands of pilots, flight attendants and other workers, seeking to avoid the delays and suspensions that marred travel last year and culminated with the Southwest Airline debacle that stranded more than 2 million people.

Airlines have canceled just 1.2% of U.S. flights so far this year, the lowest in five years, but bad weather is always a threat. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has warned the government will be holding the airlines accountable to operate smoothly and treat passengers well if there are disruptions. Earlier this week, Transportation Department announced a settlement in which Southwest will pay $140 million for its meltdown last year.

MORE | Southwest hit by record $140M fine for holiday service meltdown in 2022 that left millions stranded

The federal government is fining Southwest Airlines $140 million for last year’s historic, 10-day-long holiday meltdown that stranded more than 2 million travelers.

Fewer than 50 flights were cancelled in the U.S. by mid-Friday, and about 1,200 were delayed, according to FlightAware.

Auto club AAA forecasts that 115 million people in the U.S. will go 50 miles or more from home between Saturday and New Year’s Day. That’s up 2% over last year. The busiest days on the road will be Saturday and next Thursday, Dec. 28, according to transportation data provider INRIX.

The Houston Airport System expected about 15% more people to fly through Bush and Hobby this holiday season than last year’s.

The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2.6 million passengers on Thursday, which had been projected to be one of the busiest travel days, along with Friday and New Year’s Day. That’s short of the record 2.9 million that agents screened on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, since travel tends to be more spread over over Christmas and New Year’s.

Travel has been strong this year – surpassing pre-pandemic levels – even though many Americans say they are worried about the economy. The TSA has already screened 12.3% more travelers than it had by this time last year and 1.4% more than in 2019.

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Inflation has cooled off a bit, and travelers were helped by lower average gas prices and air fares.

The nationwide gas price average Friday was $3.13 a gallon, down 15 cents from a month ago and about 3 cents more than this time last year, according to AAA. Average fares in October were 13% lower than a year earlier, according to the government’s latest data.

Internationally, air travel has also rebounded, though it remains below pre-pandemic levels.

Airlines have sold 31% more tickets for international arrivals to global destinations between Dec. 21 and Dec. 31 compared to the similar period last year, according to travel data firm FowardKeys.

Christmas travel tips: Best and worst days to fly or drive

As holiday travelers face flight delays amid severe weather, Southwest has been fined a record $140 million over the 2022 holiday travel meltdown that left millions stranded.

Some travelers in northern Europe had a run of bad luck with bad weather and labor unrest.

A storm brought heavy rain and strong winds across northern Europe overnight and into Friday, bringing down trees and prompting warnings of flooding on the North Sea coast.

Anthony Carlo reports from LaGuardia Airport as holiday travel ramps up.

Workers at the undersea tunnel between Britain and France held a surprise strike on Thursday, forcing the cancelation of passenger and vehicle-carrying service before an agreement with unions was reached.

Eurostar, which operates passenger train services from London to continental Europe, said services will resume Friday and it will run six extra trains between Paris and London into the weekend.

In the U.S., AccuWeather forecasters say rain storms could hit the Pacific Northwest and the southern Plains states including Texas later this week, but things look brighter for population centers – and key airports – in the Northeast. A Pacific storm pounded parts of Southern California on Thursday with heavy rain and street flooding.

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Associated Press Writers David Koenig in Dallas and Haleluya Hadero in New York contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2023 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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