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Home for the Holidays: The Country’s Airports, Airlines, and Seasons that Get You There Best

Andy Chang - Updated February 1, 2023
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Home for the Holidays: The Country’s Airports, Airlines, and Seasons that Get You There Best

Wait for check-in. Wait for TSA. Wait for the train to your terminal. Wait at your gate. Air travel is full of hurry-up-and-wait vibes, even when your plane takes off on schedule. When it doesn’t, stress levels can boil over. Want to avoid delays? These are the cities, airlines, and travel months that can get you from point A to point B as smoothly as possible.

There’s no place like home for the holidays. Yet every winter, crowds and stormy weather combine to drive flight delays that can derail family celebrations. In 2022, more than 12,000 flight delays and cancellations in the days before Christmas centered on airport hubs in the path of a bomb cyclone, as it spewed snow and ice across the country.

This white Christmas was probably more festive for those who didn’t get stranded. But those who did may have been left wondering if there was any way to have a better holiday travel experience.

And if there’s no way to sidestep weather cancellations for the winter holiday season, what about during summer vacations? How can travelers stack the deck in their favor?

We looked at the country’s 10 busiest airports and top airlines both historically and this year, through September 2022, to see which airports and carriers were best at keeping their travelers on schedule, even as swelling traffic and blustery weather bore down on them.

We asked: What airports and airlines can help improve your odds of reaching your destination, and in which months? Here’s what we found.

Big Takeaways

  • Delta gets you there. Up to September 2022, Delta performed best of the top 5 air carriers this year with the fewest delayed flights — 16% — while last-place Southwest saw 24.48% of its flights delayed.
  • Over the last 5 years, Hawaiian Air leads the pack. It has the lowest overall percentage of delays over time, at 10.2%, while JetBlue struggled most in the same time period to stay on time (24.4% of its flights were delayed).
  • Atlanta’s a peach of an airport. Busy Hartsfield-Jackson Airport sees just 12.8% of its flights delayed. San Francisco has the worst delay rate over time, at 22.5%.
  • January 2021 had the lowest delay rate at 9%, across all airlines and airports in 2021 and 2022. In 2021, COVID-19’s deadliest month kept travelers home, but January remains a great time to travel while avoiding delays.
  • Delays are getting worse. January 2022 delays about doubled vs. January 2021, with an 18.04% delay rate. Up to September 2022, 6 months saw delay rates of over 20%, while in all of 2021, just 3 months did.
  • It’s not the weather. Weather is the least significant reason for delays across air carriers and airports. Carrier issues have been the biggest hold-up in 11 of the last 12 months.

Who's Got Your Ticket? Which Carriers to Choose

Delta is ranked the world’s third-largest airline in terms of passengers carried, which makes it all the more impressive that the carrier keeps its flights on time. While Delta takes the top spot in 2022, it also ranks #2 across a five-year period average from 2017. This year’s worst performer? That’s Southwest, with a delay rate of 24.48%.

Delta doesn’t just excel at keeping flights on time. It’s also less likely to cancel them altogether. Delta’s cancellation rate for 2022 through September was 1.75%, less than half of what you’ll get when flying American, which canceled 3.61% of flights this year.

Why?

Well, even before COVID-19 clipped the air industry’s wings, travelers wondered if Delta preferred to dramatically delay its flights instead of canceling them to boost their appearance of reliability. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Delta’s delay and cancellation rates are both low compared to other airlines.

For example, in June, when labor shortages and surging demand threw global airlines into disarray, Delta resorted to both delays (18.81%, their 2nd highest rate of the year) and cancellations (3.83% of flights were canceled).

While both delays and cancellations rose compared with other months, Delta resorted to them less often than the competition. Other legacy carriers like United juggled a 21.28% delay rate with 3.29% cancellations that month, while American delayed 29.18% of flights and canceled a whopping 6.29%.

This year, Delta has typically kept both delays and cancellations typically low. But when we looked at records over 5 years and included more domestic carriers, we found that the airline keeping most of its flights on time is Hawaiian.

by-arrival-destination

Of the biggest ten U.S. airlines, Hawaiian keeps travel sunniest. It takes up a tiny sliver of total delays, with just 1.8% of all air delays from January 2019 to September 2022.

And the airline industry averaged a 17.17% delay rate, so by flying Hawaiian, you’ll enjoy a 40% lower chance of delay (and you might get to hang ten on your stopover, too).

Your worst bet overall? That’s JetBlue, where you’re more than twice as likely to experience a delay than Hawaiian. About 1 in every 4 JetBlue flights arrives late. You’re also more likely to have problems when other airlines don’t. JetBlue’s worst month this year was April, before a summer crunch hit other carriers. In June, more than a third of passengers across all airlines were late getting to their destinations.

Here are the best and worst months overall for different carriers:

flight-delays-by-carrier

Both summer vacations (in June, July, and August) and winter holidays (in December) hit carriers hard in 2021. Unable to predict demand, and with labor shortages and COVID absences, some carriers felt the burn more than others.

Alaska, Frontier, JetBlue, and Southwest delays approached 30% in December 2021, where only JetBlue saw as many late planes in December 2019. With passenger numbers down from pre-pandemic levels every day except one in the two weeks from December 8 to December 22, huge crowds weren’t the reason for delay.

Even with fewer passengers, recent summer holidays are also causing a crunch. Last year, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, and Spirit Air delayed more than 30% of planes in July, whereas only Frontier hit that threshold in 2019. But July 2019 saw higher passenger numbers than every single day in July 2021 or July 2022 — except just one — July 1, 2022.

In the summer of 2022, revenge travel wasn’t sweeping the nation after all. There were reduced numbers of passengers, but bigger travel headaches and delays exceeding 30%.

Book it to Atlanta: The Best Airports to Stay on Time

To reduce the chance you’ll be late, try Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. It takes this year’s prize with a 16.19% delay rate. And it has kept the crown over time. On average, this busy hub sees just 12.8% of its flights delayed.

Blue skies and largely ice-free winters keep planes moving in Atlanta. The city is also the home of Delta, with its low delay rate. Although Hartsfield-Jackson is the busiest airport in the world, it’s also been named the most efficient, so travelers have plenty of reasons to feel confident their flight to Atlanta will arrive on time.

On the other hand, Las Vegas saw the biggest delays of 2022 through September, with 24.32% of flights arriving at Harry Reid International Airport delayed.

We wondered why, since Las Vegas rarely sees a cloud waft past its air traffic control tower. With 300 days of sunshine per year, what’s slowing down air traffic? It might be that the airport serves as an operating base (or hub) for Spirit and Southwest Airlines and a focus city for Frontier, which all struggled with on-time flights in 2022.

Las Vegas’s poor record recently may not be a major cause for traveler concern, since the airport fares better in longer-term rankings. Here are the airports with the best and worst delay rates over time:

airline-carrier

When it comes to the 5-year average, San Francisco has the worst delay rate of all. With 22.5%, the foggy city saw over 26% of its planes running late in December 2021, 33% in December 2019, and even some delays of over 30% in what are typically more forgiving months like February, May, and November.

How come? Well, it turns out fog can thwart arrivals, but only when the airport is already busy. In low visibility, planes aren’t permitted to land close together on parallel runways. So when COVID-19 stripped the airport of plane volume, planes landed one at a time, on time — even in the fog. But the problem returned in 2021, when planes once again had to take turns.

If delays are related to weather conditions, are different airports better in different months? Here’s a look at the flight delays for top airports by month:

flight-delays-by-arrival-destination

The answer is not really. San Francisco posts notoriously bad delays at the beginning of the year, but also in mid-summer and December. New York has some of its lowest delay rates before spring has really sprung, too.

Notoriously vicious blizzard months don’t seem to make for more delays. In fact, January 2021 saw the lowest delay rate across all airlines and airports — just 9%. And 4 of the top 10 airports posted their best delay rate of 2021 in January. That suggests that snow and ice aren’t a primary cause of flight delays.

Overall, airports struggle with delays most in the height of summer and in December, when weather is variable, but passenger volume is consistently high. Visiting anywhere in the country in January, September, October, or November can be a good way to avoid delays.

Atlanta’s worst delay over 5 years was 26.67% in July 2022, when summer vacations exceeded airline crew capacity across the nation, and Charlotte’s 25.26% broke that city’s 5-year record that same month. But visiting either city in September would have brought the delay rate under 13%.

Overall, the best airports remain strong through different months, seasons, and passenger volumes: they’re built for efficiency and home to some of the best airlines for keeping you on time.

Fly Time: When to Travel

It’s best to travel when no one else wants to, including during global pandemics.

Low season or not, January 2021’s rock-bottom delay rates were likely a pandemic outlier that drove already low demand down. By January 2022, delay rates at all airports were about double what they were in January 2021, at 18.04%. But travelers shouldn’t be discouraged. That was still the second-lowest rate of 2022.

summer-winter-peak-flight-delays

Ignoring April 2020, there’s a general shape to each year that shows that marching to the beat of your own vacation schedule, including vacationing mid-January, can really pay off.

Dips in the spring and fall also point to the best times to travel without frustration, with March and September typically experiencing fewer delays.

Yet, even in off-months, delays are rising. Delay rates exceeded 20% in 6 months during 2022, versus just 3 months in 2021. That’s understandable as air passenger volume returns. But sticking to the post-holiday or back-to-school lulls can help all travelers get the best experience regardless of their carrier or destination.

What’s Causing Flight Delays?

With delays surging in the middle of balmy summer vacations, the weather isn’t always to blame. In fact, the weather ranks last as a reason for the number of delayed flights. Instead, carrier issues have been #1 for 8 of the 9 months we analyzed in 2022.

flight-delay-causes

Carriers fared better before the pandemic. While their issues still towered over weather snafus as a reason for delayed flights in previous years, they took a backseat to late planes and aviation system problems.

Today, carrier challenges are on everyone’s mind.

They include circumstances within an airline’s control, like crewing to aircraft cleaning, fueling, and baggage loading.

Delays stemming from a massive aircrew labor shortage were already the biggest cause of delays when they spiked in June, 2022, calling international attention to the fatigued crews expected to handle growing numbers of passengers.

Late planes remain another top problem, and some planes are delayed by carrier struggles, cascading across multiple connecting flights throughout the day. So perhaps it isn’t always the carrier or month that passengers should prioritize when choosing a flight. To avoid delays, it’s also helpful to book a flight early in the day, before problems can spread.

Even Your Airport is Recovering from a Pandemic

Over the long haul, some top carriers and airports stand out. If you can swing flying Delta of Hawaiian through Atlanta, do it. You won’t even notice that your day goes smoothly, and you can take for granted that your plane will whisk you to your holiday celebration.

If you can postpone your holiday until January, or hit the beach in September, you’re also in luck. With fewer travelers, you’ll find fewer delays no matter what your destination.

But not everything is getting back to normal. Some airlines and airports are struggling more than they did before COVID-19 shutdowns. Leisure and discount airlines are hardest hit, with Frontier, Spirit, and Southwest, in particular, delayed more often as they struggle to hire and train crew. American Airlines has also seen high delay rates this year.

Hubs for these airlines are also impacted more than before, so if you live in one of these cities, you may find your airport struggling to recover from COVID. While San Francisco got a reprieve during the pandemic, Las Vegas is seeing its delay rates soar.

As carriers and airports adjust to new reasons for delay, it makes sense that the worst places and times to fly are also changing — a little bit. Passengers find summers and holiday periods harder hit than ever before if they coincide with staffing troubles, while flying in autumn or the dead of winter is still your best bet, even as delays increase.

Overall, you’re never guaranteed a smooth flight, but if you stick with the best carriers, seasons, and airports, it’s more likely to be worth the ride.


Andy Chang

Andy Chang

Founder of InsuranceRanked

Andy Chang is the founder of InsuranceRanked, a review site dedicated to helping consumers find the best companies in financial services. Andy is passionate about financial education and wellness, and helping others reach financial freedom. He consistently writes about topics ranging from credit to banking and lending.

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