United States

When, Who, Where to Fly to Avoid Airline Delays


Beating the clock is hardly the airline industry’s strong suit. We want help you work around that shortcoming.

Nationally, 20 percent of all flights land late, according to the most recent Department of Transportation data. Some passengers are so conditioned to daily delays, they’ve simply padded their schedule and flipped their thinking.

“I usually add an hour or so into my trip because of that,” said one airline passenger. “[Today] we arrived on time, so I felt like we arrived an hour early!”

So, we dove into gobs of government flight data.

First on our radar: the calendar. We found flights on Tuesdays and Saturdays have the best “on time” record. Avoid Fridays and Mondays. That’s when the data show most flights land late.

Next: set your alarm if you want to takeoff on time. We found early morning flights are most reliable; early evening departures are delayed the most.

Punctuality also has a lot to do with which airline you choose. The Department of Transportation ranks the top 12 U.S. carriers by on-time performance. Hawaiian Airlines is number one. Just eleven percent of its flights land late.

At the very bottom -- with 31 percent of arrivals delayed -- is Bay Area-based Virgin America.

We wanted to know why.

An airline spokesperson pointed to an increase in west coast air traffic and said Virgin America is “even more impacted than other airlines,” because 85 percent of its flights are on the west coast.

Virgin America’s poor showing isn’t the only bad news for San Francisco International Airport.

 “I know there are a lot of flights that are late out of SFO,” said passenger Peter Manderino.

“But I think I’ve probably been lucky on that.”

Peter has been lucky.

Our analysis shows just 73 percent of flights have landed on-schedule at SFO since the beginning of 2016, giving it the worst on-time record of any airport in the nation.

But lots of passengers don’t seem to notice.

One said, “I would say they’re about average”

“It’s somewhere between an A and a B,” said Peter Manderino.

Another traveler had higher expectations for SFO.

“I would say probably a C,” he said.

An airport spokesman declined to do an interview, but told us off-camera that SFO’s most recent record is actually its best in 10 years. He noted SFO’s parallel runways pose a challenge. One hiccup can cause a domino effect of delays.

The airport says it “plans to fund $10M for continued exploration” of new GPS technology that should improve on-time performance.

Flying into Oakland or San Jose improves your chances of landing on-time. At Oakland about 20 percent of flights land late. At San Jose it’s about 18 percent. 

Their records are still far from perfect, so many travelers still prefer SFO – even though 27 percent of flights are landing late these days.

 “This is my default airport,” said passenger Holly Ashby.  “To me, it’s an A. I won’t fly out of Oakland, I won’t fly out of San Jose.”

Airline delays – now seemingly inevitable – don't have to be completely roil your travel plans.

We believe your most powerful weapon to recover from a flight delay is your smartphone.

First: set alerts, so you’re among the first to know when a flight is late. Then, when there is a delay, open your airline app to see if it lets you modify your reservation yourself.

Many do.

Your options might include an earlier flight, or an alternate destination. Sometimes you can work a delay to your advantage. Best of all: using the app means you don’t have to stand in a mile-long line to re-book.

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