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Travelers cope with crowds and high prices on the busiest day of Memorial Day weekend

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Travelers cope with crowds and high prices on the busiest day of Memorial Day weekend
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Travelers cope with crowds and high prices on the busiest day of Memorial Day weekend

2024-05-25 06:40 Last Updated At:06:50

Travelers contended with big crowds and flight delays Friday, which was expected to be the busiest day of the Memorial Day weekend.

More than 6,000 U.S. flights were delayed by early evening on the East Coast, continuing a trend that has tested the patience of travelers all week. Cancellations were more modest, at slightly more than 200, according to tracking data from FlightAware.

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Michelle Winters plays the violin as passengers stand in line at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Travelers contended with big crowds and flight delays Friday, which was expected to be the busiest day of the Memorial Day weekend.

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers move through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Travelers move through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Travelers move through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Travelers move through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Cars drive through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Cars drive through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Travelers walk through the concourse at Miami International Airport ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Travelers walk through the concourse at Miami International Airport ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

A member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security patrols at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

A member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security patrols at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Gasoline prices are displayed on a sign outside a service station as the Memorial Day holiday travel period kicks off Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Greenwood Village, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Gasoline prices are displayed on a sign outside a service station as the Memorial Day holiday travel period kicks off Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Greenwood Village, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Travelers walk through the concourse at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Travelers walk through the concourse at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Travelers make their way through security at Denver International Airport on Thursday, May 23, 2024. Highways and airports are likely to be jammed in the coming days as Americans head out on Memorial Day weekend getaways. AAA predicts this will be the busiest start-of-summer weekend in nearly 20 years with 43.8 million people expected to travel at least 50 miles from home between Thursday and Monday. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Travelers make their way through security at Denver International Airport on Thursday, May 23, 2024. Highways and airports are likely to be jammed in the coming days as Americans head out on Memorial Day weekend getaways. AAA predicts this will be the busiest start-of-summer weekend in nearly 20 years with 43.8 million people expected to travel at least 50 miles from home between Thursday and Monday. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Travelers ride an escalator down to the concourse at Miami International Airport ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Travelers ride an escalator down to the concourse at Miami International Airport ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Traffic slowly moves along Interstate 405 on Thursday, May 23, 2024, in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. Highways and airports are likely to be jammed in the coming days as Americans head out on and home from Memorial Day weekend getaways. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Traffic slowly moves along Interstate 405 on Thursday, May 23, 2024, in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. Highways and airports are likely to be jammed in the coming days as Americans head out on and home from Memorial Day weekend getaways. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Travelers walk to a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport Tom Bradley International Terminal Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

Travelers walk to a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport Tom Bradley International Terminal Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Motorists travel westbound along Interstate 40, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Motorists travel westbound along Interstate 40, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Todd Robinson trims along the rows of headstones at the Marietta National Cemetery located at 500 Washington Ave NE in Marietta, Ga., Thursday, May 23, 2024, in preparation for Memorial Day weekend. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Todd Robinson trims along the rows of headstones at the Marietta National Cemetery located at 500 Washington Ave NE in Marietta, Ga., Thursday, May 23, 2024, in preparation for Memorial Day weekend. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Samuel Tadros and his daughter Serenity 3, sit with the family's bags after their flight to New York was cancelled at the Nashville international Airport Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Samuel Tadros and his daughter Serenity 3, sit with the family's bags after their flight to New York was cancelled at the Nashville international Airport Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Travelers make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Travelers make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Citra Gonzalez, 3, left, and her sister Camellia Gonzalez, 6, wait in line with their mother Deanna Oswald, above, to check in for their flight at the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Citra Gonzalez, 3, left, and her sister Camellia Gonzalez, 6, wait in line with their mother Deanna Oswald, above, to check in for their flight at the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

FILE - Motorists traveling on Interstates 90-94 head north of Chicago on Memorial Day, May 26, 2023. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

FILE - Motorists traveling on Interstates 90-94 head north of Chicago on Memorial Day, May 26, 2023. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

FILE - Travelers move through a security checkpoint in Denver International Airport ahead of the Memorial Day holiday on May 26, 2023, in Denver. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement and the air over the 2024 Memorial Day weekend. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

FILE - Travelers move through a security checkpoint in Denver International Airport ahead of the Memorial Day holiday on May 26, 2023, in Denver. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement and the air over the 2024 Memorial Day weekend. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

There were delays on the highways, too.

Along Florida's Turnpike, Wallis Tinnie said a traffic accident and road work slowed her drive to an African American history commemoration in the Florida Panhandle, the site in 1816 of the first battle of the Seminole Wars.

“But we're comfortable with it,” the Miami woman said during a stop at Port Saint Lucie. “We left early, and our event is tomorrow. So hopefully — God willing, creek don't rise — we'll be there in plenty of time.”

The Transportation Security Administration predicted that Friday would be the busiest day of the holiday weekend for air travel, with nearly 3 million people expected to pass through airport checkpoints. TSA screened just under 2.9 million people Thursday, coming within about 11,000 of breaking the record set on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

“Airports are going to be more packed than we have seen in 20 years,” AAA spokesperson Aixa Diaz said.

Highways also are likely to be jammed as motorists head out of town and then return home. AAA predicted this will be the busiest start-of-summer weekend in nearly 20 years, with 43.8 million people expected to roam at least 50 miles from home between Thursday and Monday — 38 million of them taking vehicles.

The annual expression of wanderlust that accompanies the start of the summer travel season is happening at a time when Americans tell pollsters they are worried about the economy and the direction of the country.

“Memorial Day is a holiday weekend. I get to hang with family and friends, so I’d say that’s priceless, right?" Nene Efebo said during a two-hour wait for a delayed flight at Denver International Airport. "Anything to hang out with family and friends.”

Victoria Ramos Valdes of Miami was taking a driving vacation with her husband, Blake, and their children, ages 3 and 4 months old.

“We said, hey, we're going to go for a $300 budget, and the hotel is around $150,” she said, but it has a water slide, providing plenty of entertainment. “We're taking a nice family trip and doing our best to have the best Memorial Day weekend possible.”

Some travelers reported experiencing sticker shock when they booked their trips. Upon arriving at Philadelphia International Airport, Ciarra Marsh said the city "was not our original destination, but we chose here because it was cheaper.”

At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Larisa Latimer of New Lenox, Illinois, said her airfare was reasonable but other expenses for a getaway to New Orleans were not.

“I just have to make the accommodation,” she said. “The rental car is up ... this year, the hotel accommodations were very unusually expensive.”

Kathy Larko of Fort Myers, Florida, used frequent-flyer miles — and some flexible scheduling — to pay for her trip to Chicago.

“I’m really conscious of looking at the cost of the entire trip. We’re staying a little farther out than we normally would” to get a lower hotel rate, she said. “We’re also flying back a day later, because we could get cheaper miles.”

The weekend's highway traffic and crowded airports could be a sample of what is to come for several more weeks. U.S. airlines expect to carry a record number of passengers this summer. Their trade group estimates that 271 million travelers will fly between June 1 and August 31, breaking the record of 255 million set – you guessed it – last summer.

This story was previously updated to correct the spelling Fort Myers, Florida.

Cody Jackson in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, Melissa Perez Winder in Chicago and Shelley Adler in Washington contributed to this report.

Michelle Winters plays the violin as passengers stand in line at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Michelle Winters plays the violin as passengers stand in line at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Travelers move through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Travelers move through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Travelers move through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Travelers move through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Cars drive through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Cars drive through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ahead of Memorial Day, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Travelers walk through the concourse at Miami International Airport ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Travelers walk through the concourse at Miami International Airport ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

A member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security patrols at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

A member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security patrols at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Gasoline prices are displayed on a sign outside a service station as the Memorial Day holiday travel period kicks off Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Greenwood Village, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Gasoline prices are displayed on a sign outside a service station as the Memorial Day holiday travel period kicks off Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Greenwood Village, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Travelers walk through the concourse at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Travelers walk through the concourse at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Travelers make their way through security at Denver International Airport on Thursday, May 23, 2024. Highways and airports are likely to be jammed in the coming days as Americans head out on Memorial Day weekend getaways. AAA predicts this will be the busiest start-of-summer weekend in nearly 20 years with 43.8 million people expected to travel at least 50 miles from home between Thursday and Monday. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Travelers make their way through security at Denver International Airport on Thursday, May 23, 2024. Highways and airports are likely to be jammed in the coming days as Americans head out on Memorial Day weekend getaways. AAA predicts this will be the busiest start-of-summer weekend in nearly 20 years with 43.8 million people expected to travel at least 50 miles from home between Thursday and Monday. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Travelers ride an escalator down to the concourse at Miami International Airport ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Travelers ride an escalator down to the concourse at Miami International Airport ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Traffic slowly moves along Interstate 405 on Thursday, May 23, 2024, in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. Highways and airports are likely to be jammed in the coming days as Americans head out on and home from Memorial Day weekend getaways. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Traffic slowly moves along Interstate 405 on Thursday, May 23, 2024, in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. Highways and airports are likely to be jammed in the coming days as Americans head out on and home from Memorial Day weekend getaways. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Travelers walk to a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport Tom Bradley International Terminal Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

Travelers walk to a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport Tom Bradley International Terminal Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Motorists travel westbound along Interstate 40, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Motorists travel westbound along Interstate 40, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Todd Robinson trims along the rows of headstones at the Marietta National Cemetery located at 500 Washington Ave NE in Marietta, Ga., Thursday, May 23, 2024, in preparation for Memorial Day weekend. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Todd Robinson trims along the rows of headstones at the Marietta National Cemetery located at 500 Washington Ave NE in Marietta, Ga., Thursday, May 23, 2024, in preparation for Memorial Day weekend. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Samuel Tadros and his daughter Serenity 3, sit with the family's bags after their flight to New York was cancelled at the Nashville international Airport Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Samuel Tadros and his daughter Serenity 3, sit with the family's bags after their flight to New York was cancelled at the Nashville international Airport Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Travelers make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Travelers make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Citra Gonzalez, 3, left, and her sister Camellia Gonzalez, 6, wait in line with their mother Deanna Oswald, above, to check in for their flight at the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Citra Gonzalez, 3, left, and her sister Camellia Gonzalez, 6, wait in line with their mother Deanna Oswald, above, to check in for their flight at the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

FILE - Motorists traveling on Interstates 90-94 head north of Chicago on Memorial Day, May 26, 2023. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

FILE - Motorists traveling on Interstates 90-94 head north of Chicago on Memorial Day, May 26, 2023. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

FILE - Travelers move through a security checkpoint in Denver International Airport ahead of the Memorial Day holiday on May 26, 2023, in Denver. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement and the air over the 2024 Memorial Day weekend. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

FILE - Travelers move through a security checkpoint in Denver International Airport ahead of the Memorial Day holiday on May 26, 2023, in Denver. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement and the air over the 2024 Memorial Day weekend. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will free him from prison and resolve a long-running legal saga that spanned multiple continents and centered on the publication of a trove of classified documents, according to court papers filed late Monday.

Assange is scheduled to appear in U.S. federal court in the Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Western Pacific, to plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defense information, the Justice Department said in a letter filed in court.

The guilty plea, which must be approved by a judge, brings an abrupt conclusion to a criminal case of international intrigue and to the U.S. government’s years-long pursuit of a publisher whose hugely popular secret-sharing website made him a cause célèbre among many press freedom advocates who said he acted as a journalist to expose U.S. military wrongdoing. Investigators, by contrast, have repeatedly asserted that his actions broke laws meant to protect sensitive information and put the country’s national security at risk.

He is expected to return to Australia after his plea and sentencing, which is scheduled for Wednesday morning, local time in Saipan, the largest island in the Mariana Islands. The hearing is taking place there because of Assange’s opposition to traveling to the continental U.S. and the court’s proximity to Australia.

An attorney for Assange, Barry Pollack, did not immediately return messages seeking comment Monday.

The deal ensures that Assange will admit guilt while also sparing him from any additional prison time. He had spent years hiding out in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after Swedish authorities sought his arrest on rape allegations before being locked up in the United Kingdom.

Assange is expected to be sentenced to the five years he has already spent in a high-security British prison while fighting to avoid extradition to the U.S. to face charges, a process that has played out in a series of hearings in London. Last month, he won the right to appeal an extradition order after his lawyers argued that the U.S. government provided “blatantly inadequate” assurances that he would have the same free speech protections as an American citizen if extradited from Britain.

Assange has been heralded by many around the world as a hero who brought to light military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the files published by WikiLeaks was a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

But his reputation was also tarnished by rape allegations, which he has denied.

The Justice Department’s indictment unsealed in 2019 accused Assange of encouraging and helping U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks published in 2010. Prosecutors had accused Assange of damaging national security by publishing documents that harmed the U.S. and its allies and aided its adversaries.

Prosecutors said in a charging document filed in connection with the plea agreement that Assange conspired with Manning to receive and obtain documents, notes and other writings related to the national defense and to “willfully communicate” those records. The document takes care to note that Assange was “not a United States citizen, did not possess a U.S. security clearance, and did not have authorization to possess, access, or control documents, writings, or notes relating to the national defense of the United States, including classified information."

The case was lambasted by press advocates and Assange supporters. Federal prosecutors defended it as targeting conduct that went way beyond that of a journalist gathering information, amounting to an attempt to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified government documents. It was brought even though the Obama administration Justice Department had passed on prosecuting him years earlier.

The plea agreement comes months after President Joe Biden said he was considering a request from Australia to drop the U.S. push to prosecute Assange. The White House was not involved in the decision to resolve Assange's case, according to a White House official who not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act and other offenses for leaking classified government and military documents to WikiLeaks. President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017, allowing her release after about seven years behind bars.

Assange made headlines in 2016 after his website published Democratic emails that prosecutors say were stolen by Russian intelligence operatives. He was never charged in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, but the inquiry laid bare in stark detail the role that the hacking operation played in interfering in that year’s election on behalf of then-Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Justice Department officials mulled charges for Assange following the documents’ 2010 publication, but were unsure a case would hold up in court and were concerned it could be hard to justify prosecuting him for acts similar to those of a conventional journalist.

The posture changed in the Trump administration, however, with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 calling Assange’s arrest a priority.

Assange’s family and supporters have said his physical and mental health have suffered during more than a decade of legal battles, which includes seven years spent inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 and was granted political asylum after courts in England ruled he should be extradited to Sweden as part of a rape investigation in the Scandinavian country. He was arrested by British police after Ecuador’s government withdrew his asylum status in 2019 and then jailed for skipping bail when he first took shelter inside the embassy.

Although Sweden eventually dropped its sex crimes investigation because so much time had elapsed, Assange has remained in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison during the extradition battle with the U.S.

FILE - Julian Assange speaks to the media outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, May 19, 2017. Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will free him from prison and resolve a long-running legal saga over the publication of a trove of classified documents. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File)

FILE - Julian Assange speaks to the media outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, May 19, 2017. Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will free him from prison and resolve a long-running legal saga over the publication of a trove of classified documents. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File)

FILE - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrivies at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court in London, Feb. 7, 2011. Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will free him from prison and resolve a long-running legal saga over the publication of a trove of classified documents. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, files)

FILE - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrivies at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court in London, Feb. 7, 2011. Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will free him from prison and resolve a long-running legal saga over the publication of a trove of classified documents. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, files)

FILE - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, Feb. 5, 2016. Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will free him from prison and resolve a long-running legal saga over the publication of a trove of classified documents. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

FILE - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, Feb. 5, 2016. Assange will plead guilty to a felony charge in a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that will free him from prison and resolve a long-running legal saga over the publication of a trove of classified documents. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

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