Delays are an inevitable part of air travel. If you fly enough, sooner or later you'll get caught by bad weather or some other unforeseen circumstance.
Those who take a zen approach to air travel may be able to roll with the proverbial punches and enjoy their extra time at the airport, but it's hard for most of us to keep our blood pressure in check when a delay stretches from minutes to hours.
It's not possible to avoid all delays, but you can put the odds in your favor. A new study explored this problem and found the best ways to avoid major delays.
Putting the odds in your favor
Variables like choosing certain airlines, flying from certain airports and taking off at certain times of the day affect your odds of being delayed or having your flight canceled.
On-time performance is often tied to other customer-friendly traits. Airlines that are better at staying on schedule often have superior scores in overall customer satisfaction surveys, and they are less likely to have unpopular policies like charging for checked baggage or making passengers buy refreshments.
The news site FiveThirtyEight used data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics to find out which flights get passengers to their destination the fastest and which airports are the least prone to major delays.
Some airlines are faster than others (but not by much)
Overall, the "fastest" carrier compared to the other major brands was Virgin. Richard Branson's airline was seven minutes faster than average on all its routes combined. Alaska Airlines and US Airways were six minutes on the good side of the mean. Delta, Hawaiian, Frontier and JetBlue also scored well. The tardiest carriers were American (three minutes slower than average) and United (six minutes on the wrong side of zero).
Southwest Airlines, which scored right at the average for time added to its routes, was among the most-delayed airlines in terms of overall number of flights that left after the scheduled time. About one of every four Southwest flights were delayed over the past 12 months. However, almost all of those delays were in the 15-minute range. About 3.6 percent of the airline's flights were delayed for a significant amount of time (more than two hours) or canceled. In contrast, 5.9 percent of United's and 6.7 percent of American's flights fell into the same "serious delay" category.
The best airline for avoiding major delays is Hawaiian. Over the past year, 7 percent of this carrier's flights experienced minor delays and 0.7 percent were more than two hours late. These stats have to be taken in context. If most of your flights are to sunny Hawaii, the weather is not often a factor, and there are few connecting flights clogging up the tarmac and hogging gate space.
Choosing the right airport is more important than choosing the right airline
Unless you are headed to the 50th state, flying Hawaiian Airlines is not a practical option. On most routes, fliers are left to choose between a couple of legacy carriers and a budget airline or two.
But there is one factor that is more important that which airline you choose: which airport you fly out of. An airport's ability to keep up with the weather and to cope with traffic is more important that a single airline's on-time performance. All the carriers at any airport have to wait in the same takeoff queues.
Unsurprisingly, some of the country's busiest airports are the ones that have the longest delays. The worst offenders? In the past year, New York LaGuardia's fliers had, on average, 28 minutes added to their departures. The average plane arrived at the gate 23 minutes late. The New York metro's other airports, Newark and JFK, were also in the 20-plus minute delay range for takeoffs and landings. Chicago O'Hare was another hub that caused tardiness. It came in at 17 minutes late for departures and 22 minutes late for arrivals.
Busy airports are not necessarily the most delay-prone
Not all super-busy hubs are guilty of making passengers late. Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson, the world's busiest airport in terms of overall passenger traffic, had delay averages that were less than 10 minutes for both arrivals and departures. LAX added less than five minutes to passengers' journeys despite being a major hub for connecting flights.
Also, in many major cities, fliers have a secondary airport option. For example, Chicago has Midway, Houston has Hobby, and LA has several user-friendly options including LA/Ontario and John Wayne. Unfortunately, in the case of New York City, all of the secondary options are just as delay prone as the main choice.
The most important variable: What time you fly
Even at the most hectic hubs, you can find ways to reduce your chance of getting held up. Late-night flights are known for being cheaper, but early morning journeys are the safest bet for on-time takeoffs and landings. This is because delays that happen during peak times can create a ripple in the schedule that will cause later flights to leave late. If there's a weather issue, early flights are the first in line to leave once the runways are cleared or the storm has passed. The delay is minimized as much as possible.
What about holidays? Even if you wake up before the bakers, baristas and paper delivery guys, you'll still run into an airport traffic jam around Thanksgiving time, over spring break or during the New Year holiday. The best way to avoid this is to fly early in the day and early in the holiday time frame (two or three days before the holiday, but not on a weekend).
Getting to your destination on time when you're flying is all about playing the odds. If you fly enough, sooner or later you will experience a major delay or have your flight canceled. But choosing the right airline, the right airport and, most importantly, the right time of day, can all lead to a much better chance of departing and arriving on time.
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