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Worried About Holiday Travel Delays? Busier Airports May be Better

October 23, 2014
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The 2014 holiday season is right around the corner and that means many of the busiest airports around the country will be packed with travelers. Delays can quickly stack up and cause headaches from coast to coast.

To help you prepare, NerdWallet analyzed data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics to find how often the 25 busiest winter airports experienced delays or cancellations in November and December over the past five years.

Key findings

On average, we discovered that these 25 airports experienced a delay or cancellation of 20% of their holiday flights. Some other interesting findings:

  • Avoid traveling to or from the Big Apple if you can. Three of the five major airports with the most delays belong to the New York metro area, including Newark Liberty International, which sees a delayed or canceled flight 29% of the time.
  • Busier airports aren’t always worse. Some of the busiest airports actually saw a lower rate of delays than average. For example, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the busiest airport in the world, sees a slightly lower percentage of delays or cancellations than average —19%. One of the reasons why busier airports have a smaller percentage of their flights delayed is likely because they have better facilities or more resources than small airports.
  • Thanksgiving in Phoenix? Phoenix Sky Harbor International, one of the 10 busiest airports in the country, reports the lowest percentage of holiday flight delays of the 25 major airports. Arizona’s warm weather in the winter is an added bonus.

The-Five-Worst-Major-Airports-for-Holiday-Delays-Percentage-of-flights-delayed_chartbuilder

Check out our table below with the complete details of the 25 airports we analyzed. If you live in a major metro area with multiple regional airports, scroll down to compare air travel options to see what we found at your airport.

The following chart ranks — from highest to lowest — the percentage of flights delayed or canceled at U.S. airports in November and December from 2009 to 2013. We found the percentage of flights delayed or canceled by comparing the total number of flights at each airport with the number of delays or cancellations. For more information, see our complete methodology at the end of this study.

Holiday flight delays: 25 busiest winter airports

Rank Airport name Total flights Air carrier delays Weather delays National Aviation System delays Security delays Aircrafts arriving late Aircrafts cancelled Aircrafts diverted Percent of flights delayed/canceled
1 Newark Liberty International, Newark, NJ 97,389 4,051 549 13,851 34 6,028 3,210 147 28.62%
2 San Francisco International, San Francisco, CA 124,603 5,440 764 14,712 39 9,050 2,635 377 26.50%
3 LaGuardia, New York, NY 81,868 3,568 579 9,367 14 4,272 2,671 252 25.31%
4 Chicago O’Hare International, Chicago, IL 244,580 9,215 1,289 20,232 53 16,422 6,618 271 22.12%
5 John F. Kennedy International, New York, NY 86,044 4,116 406 6,751 41 4,815 2,224 198 21.56%
6 San Diego International, San Diego, CA 62,432 3,824 314 3,043 31 4,904 834 392 21.37%
7 Philadelphia International, Philadelphia, PA 68,820 3,188 478 5,944 25 3,241 1,313 158 20.85%
8 Los Angeles International, Los Angeles, CA 171,494 8,807 894 10,715 115 12,551 2,155 406 20.78%
9 Chicago Midway International, Chicago, IL 70,164 3,595 460 3,184 88 5,958 861 245 20.51%
10 Logan International, Boston, MA 87,573 4,554 385 5,237 27 5,219 1,819 70 19.77%
11 George Bush Intercontinental/Houston, Houston, TX 204,932 10,075 997 13,969 104 12,772 2,177 372 19.75%
12 Denver International, Denver, CO 187,760 8,462 808 10,513 89 14,370 2,192 191 19.51%
13 Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall, Baltimore, MD 81,614 3,972 382 3,287 59 6,600 1,119 226 19.17%
14 McCarran International, Las Vegas, NV 115,463 6,043 463 5,416 78 8,955 773 104 18.91%
15 Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, Atlanta, GA 324,296 12,134 1,255 23,734 67 19,762 3,983 236 18.86%
16 Salt Lake City International, Salt Lake City, UT 93,310 4,028 446 4,864 36 6,600 1,361 233 18.83%
17 Orlando International, Orlando, FL 98,583 5,810 319 5,225 63 6,213 748 74 18.72%
18 Minneapolis-St. Paul International, Minneapolis, MN 96,568 4,431 545 5,208 26 5,765 1,648 139 18.39%
19 Dallas/Fort Worth International, Dallas/Fort Worth, TX 220,555 7,983 1,269 10,862 41 13,997 5,721 594 18.35%
20 Ronald Reagan Washington National, Washington, D.C. 61,200 3,017 315 3,079 12 2,975 1,537 177 18.16%
21 Miami International, Miami, FL 64,360 3,706 412 3,353 36 3,393 600 73 17.98%
22 Detroit Metro Wayne County,
Detroit, MI
106,178 4,750 533 5,402 32 6,303 1,691 151 17.76%
23 Seattle/Tacoma International,
Seattle, WA
78,720 4,180 356 4,177 36 4,219 409 126 17.15%
24 Charlotte Douglas International, Charlotte, NC 110,258 4,429 356 6,733 43 5,247 1,372 61 16.54%
25 Phoenix Sky Harbor International, Phoenix, AZ 149,217 6,823 450 6,940 94 8,511 1,400 113 16.31%

 

New York City area

Holiday-Airport-Delays-in-the-New-York-City-Area-Percentage-of-flights-delayed_chartbuilder

Airport name Total flights Air carrier delays Weather delays National Aviation System delays Security delays Aircrafts arriving late Aircrafts cancelled Aircrafts diverted Percent of flights delayed/cancelled
New York, NY: John F. Kennedy International 86,044 4,116 406 6,751 41 4,815 2,224 198 21.56%
New York, NY: LaGuardia 81,868 3,568 579 9,367 14 4,272 2,671 252 25.31%
Newark, NJ: Newark Liberty International 97,389 4,051 549 13,851 34 6,028 3,210 147 28.62%

The New York City metro area is home to the world’s largest airport system — in terms of total yearly flight operations. Although JFK is the largest of the three when it comes to total number of passengers annually as well as flight operations, it’s Newark, surprisingly, that had more total November and December flights over the past five years.

Although all three airports see more delays and cancellations than average, Newark is by far the worst of the three. If you must fly to or from the Big Apple this winter, JFK is your best chance to save time.

Greater Los Angeles area

Holiday-Airport-Delays-in-the-Greater-Los-Angeles-Area-Percentage-of-flights-delayed_chartbuilder

Airport name Total flights Air carrier delays Weather delays National Aviation System delays Security delays Aircrafts arriving late Aircrafts cancelled Aircrafts diverted Percent of flights delayed/cancelled
Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles International 171,494 8,807 894 10,715 115 12,551 2,155 406 20.78%
Ontario, CA: Ontario International 18,727 1,318 41 467 12 1,686 154 18 19.74%
Santa Ana, CA: John Wayne Airport-Orange County 33,632 1,855 179 1,277 14 2,156 289 89 17.42%

LAX is the flagship airport in the Greater Los Angeles area and is by far the biggest — but it also sees a higher ratio of flights delayed or canceled. If flying through Orange County isn’t an issue for you, and your airline of choice operates flights through there, John Wayne Airport offers the best odds of avoiding a delayed or canceled trip.

San Francisco Bay Area

Holiday-Airport-Delays-in-the-San-Francisco-Bay-Area-Percentage-of-flights-delayed_chartbuilder

Airport name Total flights Air carrier delays Weather delays National Aviation System delays Security delays Aircrafts arriving late Aircrafts cancelled Aircrafts diverted Percent of flights delayed/cancelled
San Francisco, CA: San Francisco International 124603 5439.95 763.72 14711.56 39.22 9049.6 2635 377 26.50%
Oakland, CA: Metropolitan Oakland International 37531 2065.73 87.67 1026.7 19.23 3913.66 391 38 20.10%
San Jose, CA: Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International 33304 1841.52 135 1116.42 12.71 3063.31 333 46 19.66%

If you live in the South San Francisco Bay Area, you should definitely travel out of San Jose instead of SFO or Oakland, especially if you’re flying on Southwest or Alaska Airlines, which are the largest carriers there. In San Jose, your chances of a delay are nearly 7% lower than at San Francisco’s airport.

And if you still get stuck with a delayed or canceled flight at San Jose’s Norman Y. Mineta International, your time will pass faster with the airport’s free Wi-Fi.

Washington, D.C., metro area

Holiday-Airport-Delays-in-the-Washington-D-C-Metro-Area-Percentage-of-flights-delayed_chartbuilder

Airport name Total flights Air carrier delays Weather delays National Aviation System delays Security delays Aircrafts arriving late Aircrafts cancelled Aircrafts diverted Percent of flights delayed/cancelled
Washington, DC: Ronald Reagan Washington National 61,200 3,017 315 3,079 12 2,975 1,537 177 18.16%
Washington, DC: Washington Dulles International 59,322 2,998 254 2,414 9 3,851 1,239 75 18.27%
Baltimore, MD: Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall 81,614 3,972 382 3,287 59 6,600 1,119 226 19.17%

The airport with the lowest percentage of delayed flights in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., metro area is also the closest to the capital’s downtown — Ronald Reagan Washington National. Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International are larger airports with more passengers annually, but both experience a slightly higher percentage of delays and cancellations than Ronald Reagan.

If you’re flying through Reagan National, keep in mind the perimeter restrictions that limit most nonstop flights to or from the airport to cities within 1,250 miles.

Chicago

Holiday-Airport-Delays-in-Chicago-Percentage-of-flights-delayed_chartbuilder (1)

Airport name Total flights Air carrier delays Weather delays National Aviation System delays Security delays Aircrafts arriving late Aircrafts cancelled Aircrafts diverted Percent of flights delayed/cancelled
Chicago, IL: Chicago O’Hare International 244,580 9,215 1,289 20,232 53 16,422 6,618 271 22.12%
Chicago, IL: Chicago Midway International 70,164 3,595 460 3,184 88 5,958 861 245 20.51%

In Chicago, the smaller of the city’s two airports, Midway International, offers travelers a lower chance of flight delays or cancellations. Midway sees over 20 million passengers each year, while O’Hare welcomed nearly 67 million fliers last year.

Both airports are large and each has flights from airlines not found at the other. For example, if you’re flying on Southwest, you’ll have to go through Midway, while American, Spirit and United passengers must travel through O’Hare.

Miami area

Holiday-Airport-Delays-in-the-Miami-Area-Percentage-of-flights-delayed_chartbuilder

Airport name Total flights Air carrier delays Weather delays National Aviation System delays Security delays Aircrafts arriving late Aircrafts cancelled Aircrafts diverted Percent of flights delayed/cancelled
Miami, FL: Miami International 64,360 3,706 412 3,353 36 3,393 600 73 17.98%
Fort Lauderdale, FL: Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International 55,796 3,971 253 4,046 46 3,669 535 66 22.56%

Of the two major airports serving the Miami area, Miami International is not only larger and busier, but it also has fewer delays. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International’s flights are delayed or canceled nearly 5% more often.

However, if you’re flying to or from South Florida via Southwest or Spirit Airlines, you’ll need to go through Fort Lauderdale, since Miami’s airport doesn’t serve those two carriers. On the bright side, you’ll find free Wi-Fi at Fort Lauderdale, something Miami doesn’t provide.

Methodology

We used data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics to find the percentage of flights delayed or canceled in November and December from 2009 to 2013 by comparing the total number of flights at each airport with the delays or cancellations caused for these reasons:

  • Air carrier delays or cancellations caused by issues within the airline’s control
  • Weather delays or cancellations due to significant weather-related conditions
  • National Aviation System delays or cancellations caused by the aviation system
  • Security delays or cancellations due to security breaches
  • All other late arrivals
  • All other cancellations
  • All other diversions in flight route

Newark, New Jersey, airport image via Shutterstock.