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Holiday air travel boom highlights thriving demand for jet fuel

Number of travelers expected to fly this Memorial Day weekend may be highest in nearly 20 years, according to AAA

By Jordan Fitzgerald, Bloomberg News
Published: May 26, 2024, 1:38pm

Roshni Sharma is one of the many American travelers opting against the traditional road trip this Memorial Day weekend and choosing instead to fly.

The 27-year-old nurse from Alexandria, Va., typically drives to her parents’ house in Pennsylvania for Memorial Day, but this year she and her husband are flying to Austin, Texas, to visit a long-distance friend.

“Driving down to Texas would have easily been a two- to three-day affair one way, and the entire span of our trip is two or three days, so flying is faster,” Sharma said.

Choices like Sharma’s are promising to reshape the summer market for refined oil products, with growing demand for jet fuel upstaging gasoline as a key pocket of strength. The number of travelers expected to fly this Memorial Day weekend may be the highest in nearly 20 years, according to the American Automobile Association. That would be a 4.8 percent jump from last year and a 9 percent increase from 2019.

Broader oil demand also is expected to pick up in the coming weeks as the Memorial Day weekend kicks off the peak U.S. driving season. Global crude consumption will increase by 2.8 million barrels a day from the end of April through the end of August, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s global commodities research team said earlier this month. Jet fuel demand will increase 430,000 barrels a day in that span, the firm said in an email Friday.

Already, jet fuel demand has surged to the highest since 2019 for this time of year on a four-week-average basis, according to U.S. government data. U.S. passenger volumes in the week ended May 17 climbed by around 1.5 percent from a week earlier, and BloombergNEF expects passenger numbers to keep growing toward the end of the month.

“We see jet as our fastest-growing fuel globally,” said Austin Lin, an analyst for Wood Mackenzie. U.S. jet fuel demand may advance about 5 percent in 2024, and global consumption may rise at a slightly higher rate, driven by robust American consumer spending and a delayed recovery from the pandemic in China, he said.

The trend may offer some relief to oil bulls who are looking for rising consumption to spur a summer rally and break crude out of the tight range it has been mired in as risks in the Middle East fade. OPEC and its allies will convene on June 2 and are expected to extend supply cuts, providing another potential catalyst.

The strength in jet fuel contrasts with a lackluster outlook for gasoline. While U.S. demand for the road fuel rose last week, it’s still languishing at two-year seasonal lows. Global gasoline demand will fall by an average of about 100,000 barrels a day in 2025, JPMorgan forecasts.

The doldrums helped drive bullish gasoline bets to their lowest level in six months last week as money managers failed to see returns on spring investments in the fuel. Traders still anticipate a seasonal boost, but that may be tempered as consumers lose patience with prices at the pump.

Meanwhile, longer average flight lengths and passenger volumes have been growing as the disappearance of COVID-related restrictions encourages more international trips. That’s more than making up for the increased efficiency of jet engines, analysts have said.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have favored spending money on experiences, prompting more travelers to splurge on once-in-a-lifetime trips to Europe or Asia, according to Aixa Diaz, a spokesperson for AAA.

Wood Mackenzie’s Lin sees jet fuel demand benefiting from that cultural shift over the longer term.

“People are not feeling a lot of pain in their spending,” Lin said. “There wasn’t a consequence to that post-COVID spending boom. Nothing bad happened, so there is a bit of an adaptive behavior out of that.”