Flying GA on the Holidays

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It’s going to be a busy, crowded Memorial Day weekend, especially for those traveling by air, according to forecasts.

The FAA said it expects nearly 313,000 flights during the seven days it counts as the holiday period. This would surpass last year’s total for the same period but fall several thousand flights short of pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

On the other hand, the travel group AAA, which counts travelers instead of flights and over five days instead of seven, said it expects nearly 3.4 million people to venture out. By its calculations, air travel over the holiday weekend is expected to increase by 11 percent over last year and exceed 2019 levels by 5.4 percent, or about 170,000 travelers. AAA also said this Memorial Day weekend “could be the busiest at airports since 2005.”

But the AAA is talking about big airports and big transport category jets. What is the weekend outlook for personal general aviation flights? What can pilots expect as they arrive at their holiday destinations? FLYING checked with airport and FBO managers across the country to get a better sense of just how busy things are likely to get.

Our inquiry grew in part out of necessity. While planning to fly my family from Sussex, New Jersey (KFWN), to Bar Harbor, Maine (KBHB), this weekend I began to wonder how many others might have the same idea. Will there still be space to park on the ramp? Am I too late to reserve a rental car?

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Luckily our timing was good. Cars are available and staffers at the FBO, Modern Aviation, said, “We can always make room.” Like most of the airports surveyed, KBHB is expecting a busy weekend with steady arrivals and departures, ranging from small piston aircraft like ours to turboprops, jets, and helicopters.

This is a fairly large county airport with intersecting runways, 5,200 and 3,363 feet long, and no control tower. It is the kind of place where a vintage taildragger and light jet have a good chance of approaching the traffic pattern at the same time. Etiquette is important.

Hot Creek Aviation at Mammoth Yosemite Airport (KMMH) in Mammoth Lakes, California, expects the vibe to be “pretty busy, especially with Mule Days going on in Bishop.” However, it is not expecting any record-breaking surges—nothing like the Presidents Day Weekend crowds of snow sports enthusiasts.

Dan Bartholomew, manager of Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (KASE) in Aspen, Colorado, expects the weekend to be busy but not unreasonably so.

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“I was just talking with ATC about that, and we are not expecting to be overrun,” Bartholomew said. “This is really just the ramp-up.”

Aspen, which is towered, also has been more of a winter destination traditionally. However, Bartholomew said that has changed over the past few years as the list of food and wine festivals, concerts, and other summer attractions has grown.

At Hilton Head Airport (KHXD) in South Carolina, this weekend tends to be a bit more hectic as a mix of commercial and private aircraft, plus military jets from the nearby Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort (KBFT), share the congested airspace. People who use the airport regularly love it, though, because you can just about walk to the beach from the FBO.

The area known as the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island is notorious for monumental traffic snarls that reliably form in advance of Memorial Day. It’s the kind of highway traffic that makes a great case for GA. As a result, the folks at Sound Aircraft Services, the FBO for East Hampton Airport (KJPX), are expecting a “chaotic” weekend with a steady flow of light aircraft, jets, and helicopters. Still, they say July and August are busier.

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Town residents have long complained about aircraft noise, especially from helicopters that have proliferated with the rise of on-demand charter flights. One way the FBO deals with this is by charging fees when the choppers linger after dropping off passengers.

Overall it sounds as if even the busiest GA airports will be a breeze to navigate compared with the crowds at international commercial hubs and on the highways. In my family’s case, a particular hours-long traffic jam in the Pocono Mountains in 2009 led to many years of us avoiding Memorial Day travel.

This year we look forward to trying again—the right way.

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on Flyingmag.com

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