Analyzing Air Travel Performance
How to stack odds in your favor against flight cancellations
A hefty ticket price. A delayed – or even canceled – flight. Long lines at security and no empty seats at the gate. The challenges of commercial air travel can frustrate the most patient of passengers, even before they reach cruising altitude.
We decided to investigate these common airport hassles to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of various airports and airlines. Using data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, we compiled stats on flight delays and cancellations, ticket prices, and airport crowds, along with overall airline rankings. Fasten your seatbelt, return your tray table to its locked position, and check out our fascinating findings below.
From security issues to inclement weather, maintenance issues to tardy arrival flights – the reasons that lead to flight delays are as varied as they are frustrating. The map above plots the states with the lowest and highest rates of punctual takeoffs. A quick glance reveals that airports in the eastern half of the country struggle with punctuality more so than states in the Northwestern region.
The best state for on-time flights is Hawaii, where more than 89% of takeoffs are punctual. Utah (more than 86%), Montana (almost 85%), Alaska (around 84%), and Washington (almost 84%) are also good bets for on-time travel.
If you’re in a big hurry, you may want to steer clear of our last-place state for on-time departures: Delaware, where only about 66% of flights take off on time. New Jersey and New York didn’t fare much better (around 72%), and New Hampshire and Iowa hovered around a 72% punctuality rate as well.
Overall, around four out of five flights depart on time, but a variety of factors cause airport delays to the rest. Nearly 7 percent of delays are caused by an arriving aircraft’s late arrival, and almost 6 percent are due to an air carrier delay – for instance, crew or maintenance issues, aircraft cleaning, or baggage loading. A National Aviation System delay (for instance, non-extreme weather conditions or air traffic control issues) prompts delays in more than 5 percent of flights. Canceled and diverted flights and extreme weather account for very few delays – combined, only around 2 percent of flights.
So how should you handle a flight cancellation? Contrary to popular belief, your airline does not legally owe you lodging or even a food stipend if you’re stranded at the airport due to a flight cancellation or delay; although depending on the situation, it’s a possibility for some. Travelers who can’t take the risk of a delayed or canceled flight may want to consider avoiding commercial air travel all together and chartering a private jet. For business or leisure, a private jet charter can afford you flexibility in flight changes and no hassle of crowds or long security lines, as well as luxuries such as catered meals.
Everyone wants a good deal on airline tickets. After all, flying isn’t a budget-friendly mode of travel by any stretch – and even when fares go down, extras such as baggage fees and flight-change costs can make up the difference.
But surveying ticket prices across the country, based on departure location, reveals a huge variation. Delaware is home to the best bargains – ticket prices average less than $200. New Jersey and Utah both come in below the $300 mark, and other budget-friendly states (with costs in the low $300 range) include Maryland, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Ohio.
In high-priced Alaska, tickets average more than $670 apiece. Virginia surpasses the $500 mark in addition to a handful of states including Alabama, Nebraska, Missouri, South Dakota, and Wyoming.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have to inform you that this flight has been canceled.” This announcement is sometimes enough to bring weary travelers to their breaking points. We ranked airports in order of flight cancellation rates: Chicago O’Hare International Airport came in first, followed by Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and LaGuardia Airport in New York.
This news may not surprise frequent flyers: Last year, O’Hare managed the impressive task of handling more flights than any other airport in the world, but that doesn’t stop people from suggesting improvements – from more gates to improved air-traffic control. LaGuardia has drawn criticism from various sources – including Vice President Joe Biden, who compared it to a third-world country. Dallas/Fort Worth is trying to woo would-be travelers by rebranding as a “superhub.”
So when do most of these flight cancellations occur? It turns out people have another reason to dislike Monday – already this year, more than 17,000 Monday flights have been canceled. Fridays and Saturdays see the fewest cancellations, with around 6,600 cancellations apiece on those days.
We know which airports are home to the most canceled flights and on which days, but examining each airport’s percentage of canceled flights offers a new outlook. Surprisingly, nearly 5.5% of LaGuardia’s flights are canceled. Almost 4% of flights at Newark International Airport are grounded, as are around 3.5% of flights at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and about 3.1% at Logan International Airport in Boston. Though the top location for number of canceled flights, Chicago O’Hare ranks only sixth for percentage of flights grounded, with a 3.1% cancellation rate.
What are the causes of all these cancellations? They vary. Most regional jet flight cancellations stem from weather or air-traffic congestion issues, while wide-body plane cancellations are more likely from crew shortages or mechanical breakdowns. If you’re on a canceled flight, your best bet is to hustle to rebook; otherwise, look for a hotel room (if you’re far from your destination) or rental car (if you’re nearby).
Busy airports can lead to long lines, crowded seating areas, slow walks toward the gate – all sources of frustration. To get a handle on which locations field the largest crowds, we ranked the busiest airports in the U.S. (based on how many people boarded its airplanes during a one-year period).
With more than 46 million embarking passengers, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was by far the busiest – a badge of honor the airport wears proudly. Los Angeles International Airport topped 34 million passengers, and Chicago O’Hare International saw more than 33 million.
So what’s a traveler to do during a long wait at a hectic airport? Plenty. More and more airports are offering unique amenities to ease the strain of travel – everything from a massive saltwater aquarium to a rooftop pool. Some of the busiest airports from our list are even getting in on the fun: San Francisco International Airport boasts a yoga studio, and Chicago O’Hare is home to a 72-foot-long Brachiosaurus dinosaur skeleton.
So how do airlines stack up against one another? We assigned each airline a grade based on canceled flights, late arrivals, baggage fees, and flight change fees from January to August 2015.
Hawaiian Airlines came out on top, with a fairly strong showing in every category. Alaska Airlines was next, followed by Delta. On the bottom, Spirit Airlines ranked poorly in every category but baggage fees. JetBlue and United were next lowest; both fared better in baggage and change fees than they did in cancellations and late arrivals.
No airline is perfect – and even airlines execs themselves admit their offerings won’t please everyone. For instance, Spirit targets passengers looking for no-frills travel at a low cost – and suggests that people who want to pay more for certain amenities choose a different airline. JetBlue, beloved by many for its customers-first philosophy, has recently drawn criticism for plans to reduce legroom and charge for baggage. Even Hawaiian Airlines, which claims our top spot, admitted recently that construction at the airport has hampered its performance.
We’ve looked at U.S. airlines, but how do flight statistics stack up for European airlines? German airline Lufthansa led the pack in flight cancellations, with more than 12 times as many canceled flights as any other airline. One reason? Recent strikes by airline employees in a dispute over pensions and retirement benefits grounded thousands of flights. Turkish Airlines, British Airways, and Flybe also experienced relatively high numbers of canceled flights.
In general, the airlines with the most flight cancellations also experienced high numbers of flight delays, but a few surprises exist lower on the cancellation list. Though easyJet canceled only 169 flights in a month, the British-based budget airline experienced nearly 7,000 delayed flights – the most of any airline on the list. However, easyJet recently announced it is taking steps to reduce flight delays and improve passenger experience.
When it comes to flight cancellations at European airports, Frankfurt am Main experienced more than twice as many cancellations as the next-highest airport on the list. Frankfurt is a hub for Lufthansa, so it’s clear that the airline strikes propelled cancellations at the airport. The second-highest on the cancellation list, Franz Josef Strauss Airport, too, was affected by the Lufthansa walkouts. In third place, Heathrow Airport in London – Europe’s busiest airport – was home to more than 300 cancelled flights. Why? It appears heavy fog was at least partially to blame.
Generally, airports with the most cancellations also saw high numbers of delays. However, some airports seemed to have disproportionate numbers of delays: Barcelona El-Prat Airport, Paris Orly Airport, Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport, and Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport all experienced fewer than 100 canceled flights but more than 1,000 delayed flights. For passengers in a hurry to reach their destinations, a flight on a private charter jet just may be the safest bet.
Based on our findings, one thing is clear: Your air travel experience, from ticket price to likelihood of cancellation, vary greatly depending on where you’re flying from. Busy cities back East may be prone to flight delays, but they’re also more likely to have lower ticket prices. Try not to fly on a Monday (so many cancellations!), and brace for crowds if you’re flying out of big cities like Atlanta, L.A., and Chicago.
Though you may encounter some of the frustrations we examined, you can still try to make the most of your trip: Leaf through a good magazine. Treat yourself to a nice meal. Strike up a conversation with a fellow traveler. During air travel, you may be focused on your destination – but you can still enjoy the journey.
All airport and airline travel data were taken from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
For the Commercial Airline Rankings graphic, we recorded the bag fees, change fees total flights canceled prevalence, and late arrival prevalence. Prevalence was calculated by taking total flights canceled or total late arrivals / total flights * 100. If bag fees had a situational variance, an average was taken. If change fees had a situational variance (i.e., when the change is made prior to departure), the lowest fee was taken. Next, a rank was assigned to each airline and based on its rank, a letter grade was assigned.
European flight data was collected from Flightstats.com
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