Holiday Travel using U.S. airports: The best and the worst

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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).

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.

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Depending on the airport, the potential for flight delays can grow exponentially. A study by Magnify Money looked at which airports have the best — and worst — holiday delays and cancellations.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 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.

  • 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.