Where Are the Most Miserable Airports?

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While you are looking forward to your spring or summer travels, you may not be looking forward to your trip through the airport. Depending on where you live, your airport experience may be downright miserable.

In 2019, travelers have had about a 1 in 5 chance of their flight arriving late, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The data also showed 2% of flights have been canceled.

From long security lines and delays to sitting on the tarmac or having your flight canceled, ValuePenguin did some number-crunching to calculate its Airport Misery Index.

Key findings

  • The big, bad apple: People who travel out of New York metropolitan area airports will probably not be surprised to see that Newark Liberty International, John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports were in the top 10 most miserable airports. At Newark’s airport in New Jersey, which took the top spot on the list, more than a quarter of flights are delayed — nearly 12% are delayed over an hour.
  • An O’Hare nightmare: More than 4% of flights out of O’Hare International Airport (second on the list) are canceled, while roughly a quarter are delayed. If you are flying out of Chicago and hoping to make a connecting flight, you might want to avoid tight connections as there is a good chance you will arrive later than expected.
  • Blame it on the weather: In colder climates and during the snowy season, flight delays sometimes can’t be avoided due to inclement weather, which is likely why airports in the Northeast and Midwest tend to get slammed during the holidays. On the flip side, airports in Hawaii and California — where the weather is mostly pleasant — have a much better track record when it comes to flight delays and cancellations.
  • Size doesn’t always matter: While New York and Chicago’s large airports ranked among the worst, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (the nation’s busiest) and Sea-Tac Airport in Washington state (the eighth-busiest) both ranked in the bottom half of our misery index.

Northeast travel can be torturous

As we noted, New York and New Jersey air travel is not for the faint of heart, since the three largest area airports ranked in the top 10 for airport misery.

At JFK, expect to spend extra time sitting on the plane. It has the highest percentage (4%) of flights that are delayed on the tarmac.

Meanwhile, if you’re at Newark, plan on grabbing a snack. The airport has the longest departure delays (about 24 minutes on average) and ranks first for percentage of flights (12%) delayed more than one hour.

As for making your flight, you’ll want to leave a lot of extra time when departing from JFK and LaGuardia, which both had average security wait times of an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes. (And don’t forget the traffic!)

Elsewhere in the Northeast, 22% of flights from Boston Logan International Airport were delayed. And 10% of those delays lasted more than an hour.

For a pleasant flying experience, look to the West

Among the least miserable air travel experiences can be found in Kahului and Honolulu, Hawaii; San Jose and Santa Ana, Calif.; Spokane, Wash.; Portland, Ore.; Anchorage, Alaska; and Boise, Idaho. At each of the airports, less than 5% of flights were delayed for more than an hour.

The two Hawaii airports each had less than 1% of their flights canceled, and only about 1 in 10 flights are delayed. Even if you are delayed, the average wait time is less than 10 minutes.

And in San Jose, travelers can move through security in less than 15 minutes.

Steps you can take to ease or avoid your misery

Airport anxiety is tough to avoid during peak travel times, but there are some things within your control that can help make your travel go smoother.

Try these strategies for the next time you fly:

  • Consider a less popular airport. It’s quite possible that driving a little further to a less busy airport might save you the time and hassle of long security check-ins. For instance, San Francisco International Airport earned seventh place on the misery index, but nearby Oakland International Airport ranked no. 65 and San Jose was the second best on the list. Compared to San Francisco, which has an average wait time between 75 and 90 minutes, San Jose has a much faster security wait time, and flight delays over an hour happen about half as often.
  • Take the first flight out in the morning. If possible, flying out first means you’re less likely to be delayed because of tarmac traffic or having your flight pushed back because of delays earlier in the day.
  • Use an airline credit card for special privileges. Some airline credit cards offer benefits such as priority boarding, which can fast-track you through security lines. And on certain cards, you might get airport lounge access, which makes waiting out delays a bit more comfortable.
  • Don’t check bags. If you can manage to get by with carry-on items, you can avoid at least that part of the check-in process.
  • Pay for TSA Precheck/Global Entry. This is another way to skip ahead of the ever-growing security lines. TSA Precheck costs $85 for five years, while Global Entry costs $100 for the same period. Hint: Some travel credit cards will even cover the cost of these fees for you as an added benefit when you use your card to purchase.

Bottom line

When it comes to air travel, especially during busy travel times, the best philosophy is to expect the worst, but hope for the best.

You might get lucky and breeze through security, only to wait around for a delayed flight. Or, you might get on your plane and end up sitting on the tarmac for what feels like an eternity.

You can try investigating different airport choices and flight times to boost your chances of a smoother experience. You can also arm yourself with credit card perks that can make your airport stay more pleasant.

But even then, your flying fate is out of your hands. So give yourself lots of time, pack some snacks, bring a backup phone charger and dress comfortably so you’re ready to battle whatever airport misery may come your way.

Methodology

To rank the most miserable airports from which you can fly out, researchers looked at data for the 84 airports with at least 10,000 departures. Specifically, we looked at six factors:

  • Flight cancellation rate: The percent of flights that were canceled.
  • Flight delay rate: The percent of flights that were delayed.
  • Average length of delay: The average amount of minutes a flight was delayed.
  • Tarmac delay rate: The percent of flights where the flight was delayed while on the tarmac.
  • Severe delay rate: The percent of flights that were delayed at least an hour.
  • Security wait time: How long security wait times are during rush hour. To create this score, we looked at wait time data for three time periods: 6 to 7 p.m. Friday, 6 to 7 p.m. Sunday and 7 to 8 a.m. Monday. We scored each day based on 15-minute intervals and scored as such:
    • 1: Average wait of less than 15 minutes
    • 2: Average wait of 15 to 30 minutes
    • 3: Average wait of 30 to 45 minutes
    • 4: Average wait of 45 to 60 minutes
    • 5: Average wait of 60 to 75 minutes
    • 6: Average wait of 75 to 90 minutes
    • 7: Average wait of 90 to 105 minutes
    • 8: Average wait of 105 to 120 minutes

Data — except for security wait times — comes from the Department of Transportation and covers January to July 2019. Data on security wait times, which was pulled in October 2019, comes from the Transportation Security Administration app.

To create the final rankings, we ranked each airport in each metric. We then found each airport’s average ranking, giving each metric an equal weighting. Using this average ranking, we gave each airport a score. The airport with the best average ranking received a 100. The airport with the worst average score received a 0.

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