Summer is coming to an end, and the holiday travel season is fast approaching. The period around Thanksgiving marks a time when airports across the U.S. become packed with travelers waiting to take flight toward their turkey day destinations to visit family and friends or even take a break from work. We looked through airport on-time performance data provided by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) over the last five years. Here's where and when the worst delays happen at the 50 biggest airports in the country.
- Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest day for flight traffic. However, the Friday before Thanksgiving (six days before) is the worst day when it comes to delayed flights.
- Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey experiences the worst delay times before Thanksgiving, with Palm Beach International Airport in Florida coming in close second.
- McCarren International Airport in Nevada experiences the most drastic increase in the proportion of delayed flights before Thanksgiving, increasing by more than 21 percentage points.
When do airports start to feel the stress of Thanksgiving travel?
November can be a very hectic month for airports due to the higher-than-normal passenger volumes. The above heat map showcases regions of exaggerated departure delay times for the 50 busiest airports across the U.S. Delays start to really spike during the 11-day period before Thanksgiving. Although the busiest day for flight traffic is on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, delay times don't reach their highest values here. Instead, the largest departure delays are seen five to six days before Thanksgiving, with the Friday before Thanksgiving (six days beforehand) experiencing the longest delay times on average. As far as flying out after all the turkey's gone, the Sunday after Thanksgiving tends to see the greatest delay times, followed by Monday.
Which airports have the worst departure delays before Thanksgiving?
Since we found the Friday before Thanksgiving to be the worst day for departure delays on average, we decided to take a closer look and compare airport on-time performances during this day. The above graph shows the range of average departure delays observed at each airport for the Friday before Thanksgiving across the last five years. Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey experiences the worst delay times on average at 39 to 40 minutes, but average delays were as high as 81 minutes within the recent five-year period we looked at. Palm Beach International Airport in Florida ranked second in terms of worst delays, experiencing average delay times of 37 to 38 minutes, going as high as 56 minutes. In contrast, Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Hawaii and Oakland International Airport in California experienced the least drastic delay times, averaging only 11 to 12 minutes and 16 to 17 minutes, respectively.
Which airports show the largest increase in delayed flights?
To determine which airports undergo the largest increases in delayed flights, we compared the proportion of delayed flights, which includes departures and arrivals, for the Friday directly before Thanksgiving to the Friday prior. We found that McCarren International Airport in Nevada experiences the most drastic increase in the proportion of delayed flights before Thanksgiving, increasing by 21.7 percentage points. The second- and third-largest increases in delayed flight proportions occur at two airports in Houston: George Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby Airport. Flight delays increase by 18.8 and 17.6 percentage points, respectively.
What are the common causes for delays?
There are five common causes for flight delays reported by the BTS. Flights may be delayed by the carrier, aircraft, National Airspace System (NAS), security and weather. Most delays can be attributed to late aircraft arrivals and carrier delays. You can look at the table below to see a breakdown for each airport.
Late Aircraft (%)
What can travelers do about a delay?
Minor delays that either last a few hours or don't cause you to miss any flight connections typically offer passengers little opportunity for recourse. Passengers may be able to qualify for a variety of benefits such as expense reimbursement, subsidized flights or even direct compensation if their trip is significantly delayed. As an example, travel insurance normally offers reimbursement for expenses incurred during a delay and might even cover the cost of buying a new ticket. However, these benefits usually don't become available until a trip has been delayed for at least six to 12 hours. Similarly, airlines may also reimburse some of your refreshment expenses during a long delay or provide you with vouchers, but these are limited and might require you to waive your ability to seek any further compensation. You could potentially receive a greater payout by saving your boarding pass and receipts and then contacting the airline to file a claim after your trip.
Data on airport flight delays was acquired from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). In order to calculate average delay times on days leading up to and after Thanksgiving, we collected recent flight data for November from 2013 to 2017 and focused on the top 50 airports by flight traffic. Please note that this study only focuses on delayed domestic flights, excluding international flights.