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Americans keeping summer travel plans, for now

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  • Airline economist says Americans likely will carry on with their summer plans
  • FAA inspections will continue through June; more problems possible
  • Travelers may stay closer to home or trim time off their trips to save money
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By Marnie Hunter
CNN
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(CNN) -- Despite the recent spate of airline cancellations and record gas prices, Americans don't appear to be abandoning their summer travel plans.

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Americans are expected to proceed with summer travel, despite airline cancellations and economic concerns.

"Airline service gets worse and worse, delays get worse and worse, and yet people are still flying in record numbers," said Alan Bender, professor of airline economics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

A faltering economy, record-high gas prices and upheaval in the airline industry seem like good reasons to stay home, but AAA spokesman Mike Pina expects the steady increase in summer travel to continue this year.

"It'll affect travel in the sense that people are going to probably take less luxurious vacations," he said.

Pina said Americans may stay closer to home or choose a local amusement park over one of the resort destinations in Florida or California.

"Things are problematic, but they're not so bad that someone will tell their kids they're not going on vacation," he said.

The cancellation by American Airlines of more than 3,000 flights this week, as well as those at a handful of other carriers, has raised concerns that stringent Federal Aviation Administration inspections to be carried out through June 30 will hobble air travel this summer. Video Watch what's causing the airline cancellations »

Bender said he's cautiously optimistic that the airlines will comply with FAA directives before the summer season begins.

"I believe that the airlines will do everything possible to make this somewhat miserable now to avoid unbelievably miserable conditions in the summertime," he said.

There's no way to know what the FAA might find as inspections continue or which airlines might be affected.

"To some extent, you need a maintenance expert and then you need a crystal ball to see what the political implications are," Bender said.

Based on the high compliance rates found in the last round of audits, the FAA hopes this wave of inspections will yield relatively few issues, said agency spokesman Les Dorr.

"But that said, if we do find something, we're going to bring it to the carrier's attention, and they're going to have to make a business decision on how they're going to deal with it," Dorr said.

"There could be [more problems], but that's like saying it could rain tomorrow. Maybe it will, maybe it won't."

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, an organization that advocates for airline passengers, attributes the current situation to complacency.

"It's not that we're in a terribly unsafe environment, it's just that airlines and the FAA have gotten comfortable with the high level of safety that has existed and haven't been as precise as they should have been," Stempler said.

He expects the airlines to return to normal schedules quickly. "They certainly lose a tremendous amount of money when this happens, so they're going to try to avoid that situation again if at all possible."

Princess Kamara, a Sierra Leone native, said she's pleased to hear that safety regulations are being enforced. She's planning a trip from Atlanta, Georgia, to West Africa in June with her four children.

"I'm just concerned about the safety," she said. "The airline needs to be checked because it's a long flight."

Nancy Strong, owner of Strong Travel Services in Dallas, Texas, said she doesn't think her agency's clients are likely to change their travel plans over recent travel disruptions, or any future airline problems, for that matter.

"You're going to be a little irritated, but you're not going to give up your life, or your holiday or your plans over the airline," Strong said.

She said that she and her agents haven't heard from clients who want to change their summer plans and aren't advising clients to change future plans or hold off on booking summer travel.

Carlson Wagonlit travel agents are seeing the usual seasonal waves of travel bookings, spokeman Steve Loucks said, but he predicts if the airline cancellations continue over the next few weeks it could begin to impact customers' summer vacation decisions.

The vast majority of summer travelers will be driving to their vacation destinations, and regular gasoline prices are projected to average $3.54 per gallon for the summer driving season, up from an average of $2.93 per gallon last summer, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Mitch Autry of Cincinnati, Ohio, said he decided it makes more sense to drive to North Carolina's Outer Banks for a summer getaway.

"It's cheaper than flying four kids and two adults. It's going to be expensive, but it's still cheaper than flying for us," he said.

Compared with last summer, increases in gas prices probably will add less than $40 to the overall cost of a vacation, according to a Travel Industry Association spokeswoman.

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For Americans, the average overnight trip lasts three nights and costs an average of $557, excluding transportation, according to the association.

Travelers may stay closer to home or trim a day or an expensive meal or activity off their trips, the association says, but economic and industry woes likely won't keep these Americans at home this summer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Debra Alban and Sean O'Key contributed to this report.

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