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Updated on Monday, December 10, 2018
With the holiday travel season fast approaching, be prepared for a record number of passengers expected to take to the skies across the country. U.S. airlines carried 72.3 million passengers in December 2017, a new all-time high, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).
MagnifyMoney’s research team dug into 10 years of U.S. Department of Transportation holiday flight data between 2008 and 2017 on the 50 busiest airports in U.S. to find out which ones are the worst when getting to your destination on time is the goal.
Holiday travel is defined as flights that depart between Dec. 20 and Dec. 31 each year. A flight delay is when one that arrived at its destination 15 minutes or more behind schedule or was canceled altogether.
Depending on your airport of choice, the potential for flight delays can grow exponentially. We take a look at which airports have the best — and worst — holiday delays and cancellations. We also offer tips on how to handle them if they happen to you.
- The worst delays are after Christmas. 66% of airports had their worst day for delays after Christmas. Dec. 26 is the most unfavorable day for holiday delays at 44% of airports. Airports with reputations for delays before Christmas include San Francisco International, Ronald Reagan Washington National, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International and Tampa International.
- No geography is spared. Amazingly, airports toward the bottom of the list aren’t just located in the snowy Northeast and upper Midwest. Among the bottom 10 include Oakland International, Salt Lake International, Houston Hobby and Denver International. Among the 10 at the bottom of the list or canceled flights, Dallas/Fort Worth and Raleigh-Durham are two surprises, with about 3% of holiday flights canceled, thanks to occasional ice storms at each airport.
- The Charlotte hub is the best. Among the major connecting hubs, North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport, an American Airlines hub, fared the best, with 75.7% of flights reaching their destination on time over the December holidays. A mere 1.2% of flights were canceled, but beware — the least favorable day to travel out of Charlotte is Dec. 22, which could make getting home for the holidays more challenging for travelers. Atlanta — the world’s busiest airport and Delta Air Lines’ largest hub — came in second among the big connecting hubs, with 74.9% of holiday flights reaching their destination on time.
- The Newark Airport hub? Not so good. This United Airlines hub, the airline’s third largest based on daily flights, only had 62.2% of its flights arrive on time in the past 10 years, with 4.5% of them canceled, thanks to its location in one of the most congested airspace corridors in the world. Try to avoid flying out on Dec. 27, the airport’s busiest travel day. Following Newark on the list for unfavorable connecting hubs was a bit of a surprise: Denver International Airport, United’s fourth largest, had 64.1% of its flights come it on time.
- New Yorkers: Fly out of LaGuardia. Flights out of the city’s third airport — ranked a respectable 45 out of 50 for holiday delays — reached their destinations on time at least 75% of the time over the holidays, versus less than 65% at JFK and Newark. LaGuardia, which has strict federal limits on the number and distance of flights, has fewer of the regional feeder flights flown with smaller planes that are more likely to be delayed. Newark, as a major hub for United, and JFK, a major hub for Delta and JetBlue, have more of these flights than LaGuardia. When it comes to the most damaging delay of all – an outright cancellation – LaGuardia fares no better than the other two area airports, with 4% of flights canceled over the holidays.
- Chicago ranks the highest for holiday delays. If you’re departing from one of Chicago’s two airports this holiday season, there’s about a 40% chance your flight will be late. Only 61.5% of flights departing Chicago Midway arrived at their destination on time over the past 10 years of holiday travel. O’Hare isn’t much better, with only 61.6% of flights arriving their destination on time. But it’s worse when it comes to cancellations, with nearly 5% of its flights canceled the last 10 holiday travel seasons.
- Hawaii can relax. Travelers leaving Hawaii to see friends and family on the mainland have had it pretty easy, with 84.2% of flights departing out of Honolulu International arriving on time, and a mere 0.5% of them getting canceled, based on our data. Maui is almost as easy, with 83.7% of departing flights reaching their destination on time.
Be prepared for holiday delays
The key word for holiday travel is patience. The nation’s air traffic controllers handle 70,000 flights a day in the U.S., according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). While the vast majority of flights operate on time, there are situations like weather and aircraft maintenance that can cause delays and cancellations, causing a ripple effect.
Advanced planning and helpful tools won’t stop flight interruptions and cancellations, but they can help you recover more quickly so your holidays aren’t ruined. Below are some concrete steps you can take to help mitigate the damage of a delay or cancellation, making it more likely you’ll arrive at your final destination.
Choose flights deliberately. Early morning flights can be painful, but those flights have better odds of being on time as the plane has often arrived the night before and is already parked at the gate. This gives you much better odds of an on-time departure.
You have rights. The DOT requires all airlines to offer travelers access to their contract of carriage, a document that outlines what they will and won’t do for passengers in case of flight delays or cancellations. CompareCards, also owned by LendingTree, outlined the contract of carriage for the top eight U.S. airlines here.
Check your credit card. That piece of plastic in your wallet can be an invaluable tool when it comes to flight delays or cancellations. If your credit card comes with trip delay reimbursement, you can get up to $500 per airline ticket to cover things such as meals and lodging if your flight is delayed for more than 12 hours. And if your flight is either canceled or cut short for reasons including sickness, severe weather or other covered situations, trip cancellation insurance offered by your card can reimburse you for up to $10,000 for prepaid, nonrefundable travel expenses, including passenger fares, tours and hotels. Some cards also provide access to a concierge service that is ready to help mitigate flight delays or cancellations. Be sure to check your card’s terms & conditions for more details.
Follow the numbers. Travelers can check on an airlines’ on-time statistics and delays at the Bureau of Transportation Statistics or at the monthly DOT Air Travel Consumer Report. There’s also the Federal Aviation Administration’s tracking of flight delays on its air traffic control system command center website. A map shows airport delays by color code and allows you to search for delays by region or airport.
Pick up the (smart) phone. Apps like FlightView, FlightAware, Flight Board, Flightradar24 and FlightStats can not only track the status of your flight, but also give you regular updates if your flight is delayed or canceled. This information can give you a leg up on other passengers if you need to be re-accommodated if your flight is delayed or canceled.
Get notified. Sign up for an airline’s flight status text notifications on your smartphone. You’ll get flight updates that can sometimes be more accurate than those given at the gate. Plus airlines use this tool to proactively rebook your flight in case the worst happens, usually waiving change and cancellation fees.
Membership has its privileges. If you are among an airlines’ best customers’ loyalty program, you can call a dedicated customer service line that tends to be more responsive than regular lines. These specially trained agents can be your best friend when it comes to recovering from flight issues.