Thanksgiving Travel Delays: The Worst Days, Airlines and Airports
Image: iStockphoto/Anna Bryukhanova

If you’re planning to fly home this Thanksgiving, the best time to book your Thanksgiving travel plans was the week of Oct. 31. For those that are running a little late, there might just be a silver lining.

RewardExpert analyzed five years’ worth of flight data for 45 major US airports and the top 10 domestic airlines to come up with its Thanksgiving 2016 Holiday Travel Forecast. They learned that your odds of an on-time arrival vary quite a bit depending on the airport, airline and day of travel.

Because the last thing you want is to be stuck in an airport while your family is gathered ’round the table, getting ready to devour a turkey feast, those who’ve yet to buy their tickets can use the following data to avoid any potential Thanksgiving travel delays.

1. Second-Best: Fly on November 21st

Monday, November 21st is said to be the best day for early birds who are hoping to arrive a few days ahead of time, since this day historically shows the second-least number of delays.

2. Best: Fly on Thanksgiving Day

According to the Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics from 2011-2015, flights leaving on Thanksgiving morning are the least likely to experience delays. (That’s the day when Thanksgiving fares typically are cheapest, too.)

3. Worst to Traveling There: November 22nd

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving is considered the absolute worst day to fly. Though, the reports don’t indicate if this is due to weather, crowds, or a combination of both.

4. Best to Travel Home: November 25th

While shoppers are hitting the stores, Black Friday (November 25th) is a good day to fly home. According to RewardExpert, delays get worse the deeper you get into the post-Thanksgiving weekend. That makes November 26th the second-best option.

5. Worst to Travel Home: November 27th

Flying home on a Sunday after Thanksgiving comes at a 1-in-5 risk of being delayed, which is the second-highest of any day surrounding Thanksgiving. (The absolute worst being November 22nd.)

Top 10 Airlines With the Best On-Time Performance Over Holidays

Among the major carriers, Delta Airlines was ranked at the top of the list for punctuality, with 88.8 percent of its flights taking off or arriving within 15 minutes of the scheduled time.

United Airlines came in at No. 5 with 83.3 percent of flights leaving within a quarter-hour of the scheduled time. Third place in legacy carriers when it comes to punctuality is American Airlines at 82.6 percent of flights having timely departures.

Related: Low-Cost Carrier vs. Legacy Airline

Legacy airlines are listed separately because they make up the bulk of flights in the sky. However, passengers who can get to their desired destination on an alternate carrier might want to consider Hawaiian Airlines, since the carrier came in at number one, with 94.4 percent of departures on time.

The entire ranking is as follows:

  1. Hawaiian Airlines (94.4 percent)
  2. Delta Airlines (88.8 percent)
  3. Alaska Airlines (86.3 percent)
  4. Virgin America (85.7 percent)
  5. United Airlines (83.3 percent)
  6. American Airlines (82.6 percent)
  7. JetBlue Airways (82.3 percent)
  8. SkyWest Airlines (80.5 percent)
  9. Southwest Airlines (79.4 percent)
  10. Frontier Airlines (78.7 percent)

Airports With the Best and Worst Records of Timely Holiday Departures

While crowds can affect on-time departures to a small extent, there’s nothing that can ruin an airline’s track record faster than weather. Surprisingly, it’s not rain or sleet that disrupts air traffic as much as fog.

That’s why, despite getting rave reviews for its accredited art museum, foodie-magnet restaurants, and a Zen Room stocked with yoga mats, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is rated the worst for on-time arrivals and departures.

How often to delays occur at SFO?

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, SFO had an average on-time departure rate of 76 percent in 2013. The numbers were even worse for arrivals the same year, with flights landing on-time only 73 percent of the time.

Those numbers mean that passengers flying out of SFO have a one-in-four chance of leaving late. A final nail in the coffin for SFO flights is that, when delays do occur, they’re actually longer than in other US airports, making one of every four flights at least an hour off schedule.

If you need to fly in or out of California’s Bay Area, our suggestion is looking for flights that touch down at surrounding airports. The closest alternative is a tossup between Oakland International Airport (OAK) and San Jose International Airport (SJC)—though, it’s my experience that flights touching either are only slightly better.

Alternately, if you can handle the 90-minute drive, Sacramento International Airport (SMF) offers an average of 80 percent on-time departures.

Knowing that fog is the single worst type of inclement weather when it comes to airport delays, it’s little surprise that the other four worst-ranked airports in the US after SFO are:

  1. William P. Hobby (HOU) at 79.2 percent
  2. Oakland (OAK) at 79.3 percent
  3. Chicago Midway (MDW) at 79.6 percent
  4. Chicago O’Hare (ORD) at 79.6 percent

Does your travel take you through one of the five airports just named as the worst for delays? Truth be told, the statistics on which days to travel are somewhat telling. But, little affects timely flight arrivals and departures like the weather.

Related: 7 Things to Do That Make Long Layovers Fun

To pour a little salt in your wound, travelers hoping to avoid holiday delays have a much easier time picking the day they fly or which airline they fly on than trying to fly in and out of a different airport.

Does that mean the situation is totally hopeless? Not quite...

Tips for Avoiding Thanksgiving Flight Delays

We’ve mentioned the effect weather can have on flight timeliness, but that’s not the only factor.

Mechanical issues, airspace congestion and even things like crew scheduling can also get in the way.

Although there’s never a way to guarantee you’ll be on time, here’s how to lessen your chances of being delayed:

1. Book a Morning Flight

When booking your flight, try to fly in the morning. Airlines generally have the ability to “reset” their system overnight. That’s because planes that start falling behind in schedule mid-day create a ripple effect, throwing off all the day’s remaining flights from coast to coast. However, come night time, they have a chance to catch up.

Additionally, aircraft are given a once over at night by maintenance. This means that those heading out on the first flight of the day are less likely to run into a mechanical issue that causes delays.

This is supported by Department of Transportation reports that show the largest US airports as having on-time arrivals peak between 7 a.m. and 7:59 am., with 89.6 percent of flights arriving on time.

By 2 pm, that rate dips below 80 percent for the first time, and by 6 pm, it’s dipped below 70 percent.

Pro Tip: Ask for an originator flight. These are the first flights out and are often not delayed. Just know that it’s difficult to spot these online so you might need to call an airline rep and ask which flights are the first out that day.

Unless You’re Flying Out of SFO

The one caveat? San Francisco sees heavy fogs roll in after sunrise. If you’re flying out of SFO, try to get on a flight scheduled to leave before the air starts warming, or consider an afternoon departure.

2. Book Nonstop Flights When Possible

Every connection is an extra opportunity for delays. Even if you’re cruising through an airport that’s rarely affected by poor weather conditions, ground delays can occur for any number of reasons, and there’s an increased chance that you’ll end up stuck for hours.

If your flight makes a stop, or you need to rely on a connecting flight to get to your destination, there is a greater chance for a delay.

3. Try to Depart From a Smaller Airport

Flying in and out of major hubs, such as Chicago O'Hare and LAX in Los Angeles increases the chance of delays since heavier runway traffic presents a higher chance that your plane will get stuck in line should things go wrong.

4. Finally, Don’t Create a Hold-Up With Your Carry-On Items

Flights have a scheduled time that they’re supposed to leave the gate which directly affects their spot in line on the runway. While the weather is the most obvious cause of delays, sometimes passengers can cause the tipping point between a flight that could have left on time and one that’s late.

Other articles will tell you to observe all baggage and security rules and regulations closely, pack your carry-on bags so that they’re easily searched or scanned, and be sure to remove your shoes, coat, and metal items when heading through security.

Related: How to Get Through the Airport Faster & With Minimal Hassle

While that’s good advice, the truth is that failing to go through security in an efficient manner only hurts yourself—the plane has no problem leaving without you.

Instead, passengers cause delays with their carry-on luggage. Especially over the holidays, as everyone travels with a year’s worth of winter coats, gifts, fresh fish, flowers in vases, even kittens hidden in their backpacks. (I kid you not, it really happened.)

Even without an absurd assortment of goods, the overhead bins are a source of trouble and delays. That’s because the aircraft isn’t allowed to leave its gate until all bins are closed.

This leaves your flight attendants scrambling in a real-time game of Tetris as they yank and shift oddly shaped bags of unknown weights into submission while attempting to make an on-time departure.

In short, how you stow your luggage is important! For the love of all that is good and kind, please follow these steps:

Step 1: Know How to Lift Your Luggage

Lift the bag onto the top of the seat. Then grip your luggage with your one hand on the left and right side of the bag and place it in the bin. Please don’t try to fling it up with momentum—doing so is a great way to knock out a fellow passenger, which means you’re now stuck at the gate.

Step 2: Be Prepared to Gate Check

If your bag is too heavy to lift, know that a flight attendant won’t be able to hoist it for you. Each year, flight crew experience over 72,000 incidents of bag-related injuries—an injured crew member means a delayed flight. Instead, expect to gate check a carry-on that you can’t lift. Most airlines will do this for free to avoid potential delays.

Step 3: Place Your Bag in the Bin Correctly

Most aircraft overhead bins are designed to have bags placed “wheels out.” However, this can vary by aircraft. For example, a new “Space Bin” in Boeing 737s will allow bags to be placed on their sides and will increase space by 50 percent.

Alaska, Delta, and United are among those airlines that will be using the Space Bin-equipped overheads, which can accommodate six bags.

If your bag doesn’t seem to be fitting in the bin, your best bet is to just ask the nearest flight attendant how it should be arranged.

Do you have a duffel bag or other soft-sided, oblong piece of luggage? Try to create more room by placing this in the middle of the bin where space is slightly restricted by the molded edges that screw into the ceiling.

The one way not to place your bags is horizontal. Not only does this take up double the amount of room, but often, it means your bag is hidden from view. This often leads to other passengers attempting to jam their bag into yours and potentially damaging your belongings.

Step 4: Save Coats, Purses, and Other Personal Items for Last

Once your bag is in the bin, drape your coats, sweaters, small bags, etc. over the handles. You’re less likely to leave it behind, and it ensures that your crew doesn’t have to remove and rearrange all your items just to close the bin.

Pro Tip: Don’t hold up the line of passengers filling in as you pick through your carry on to pull out your iPad, book, glasses, or water bottle. Instead, learn how to quickly separate all the things you’ll need during your flight into an “in-flight care package” in Essential Steps to Prep for a Perfect Flight.

Finally, What to Do If Your Flight Is Delayed?

Seasoned travelers have almost certainly experienced flight delays and likely already follow a few preventative steps. What can you do to prepare for a possible delay?

First, check the status of your flight before going to the airport. You can call the airline or check flight status online. If you notice delays online, contact the airline directly for more information. Either way, it’s better to know of any possible delays before leaving home.

Despite your best efforts, there’s always a chance you could end up stuck at the airport if a delay occurs. To avoid making a bad situation worse, be sure to pack medications, medical devices, and necessary personal items in your carry-on luggage or purse so that you can get to them easily.

See Also: 7 Best Travel Accessories You Need for Every Trip

Most airports have restaurants and retail stores, but if you’re not familiar with your flight’s destination facility, pack any special food items you may need. If possible, have a backup travel plan in place in case of a cancellation.

At the end of the day, there’s no way to completely avoid flight delays. A natural disaster, mechanical failure, or airline mix-up could occur at any time of year. However, with smart planning and a little flexibility, you can improve your odds of getting to your Thanksgiving destination on time.

Bottom line? Hope for the best, but remember to pack your patience, just in case.

For more information and tips, head to our 2017 Holiday Shopping and Travel Guide.

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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