Airlines may have struggled last year, but they flourished in one major area — on-time arrivals. In 2020, 84.6% of U.S. flights arrived on time, the highest percentage on record (dating back to 1987). That’s up from 79.2% in 2019.
The simplest explanation is that there were fewer flights in the air and less runway traffic. To delve deeper into the phenomenon, ValuePenguin researchers looked at on-time arrival rates and average delays in summer 2019 and 2020 at the 100 busiest U.S. airports. For consistent figures, researchers used June, July and August as summer months.
"I expect that we’ll see arrival rates fall and delays become more common simply because there will be more planes in the air this year," says Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at ValuePenguin. "We probably won’t revert to 2019-type numbers, but it probably won’t look like 2020 either."
- Key findings
- On-time flight arrivals hit U.S. record in 2020
- Newark Airport sees biggest change in on-time flight rates among 100 busiest U.S. airports
- Led by an 85.6% drop in Duluth, Minn., average flight delays down at each of the 100 airports
- Planning on flying this summer? Here are 5 things to know
- No year was better for arriving at your destination on time than 2020. Last year, 84.6% of flights arrived on time, roughly 2 percentage points higher than the previous record of 82.5% in 1991. The worst year for on-time performance was 2000 (72.6%).
- Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey had the highest increase in on-time arrival performance between summer 2019 and summer 2020. In summer 2020, 91.3% of Newark flights arrived on time, up 48.3% from 61.5% in summer 2019.
- Hawaii and Alaska were home to the only airports where on-time arrival rates fell. The on-time arrival rate dropped 3.5% at Hilo International Airport in Hawaii between summer 2019 and summer 2020 and 0.5% at Juneau International Airport in Alaska.
- Average flight delay times plummeted at all 100 airports examined. Duluth International Airport in Minnesota had the biggest percentage drop as the average delay fell from 18 minutes in summer 2019 to 2.6 minutes in summer 2020 — an 85.6% fall.
On-time flight arrivals hit U.S. record in 2020
Though 2020 was a challenging year in many respects, one silver lining was its record-setting performance for on-time flight arrivals. Last year, 84.6% of flights landed on time, the best result in over 30 years.
Historical look: On-time flight arrival rate
Before 2020, the best on-time flight arrival rate was recorded in 1991 (82.5%). Meanwhile, the low point since record-keeping began in 1987 was 2000, when just 72.6% of flights arrived on time.
It’s hard to speculate what may have impacted on-time flight shifts over the years, but The Washington Post explored what was going wrong in 2000.
The top reasons for flight delays, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), include:
- Air carrier delays, including maintenance or fueling problems
- Late-arriving aircraft
- Extreme weather, including tornadoes, blizzards or hurricanes
- National Aviation System delays, including heavy traffic volume
- Security delays, including evacuations or broken screening equipment
Newark Airport sees biggest change in on-time flight rates among 100 busiest U.S. airports
Much lighter travel amid the coronavirus pandemic had a significant impact on airport performance in summer 2020 compared to the summer before.
Nearly 2.3 million passengers went through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints on May 26, 2019. On the same date in 2020, just more than 261,000 did.
In large airports, less volume can help keep flights running on time, as was the case for Newark Airport in New Jersey, LaGuardia Airport in New York and Boston Logan International Airport in Massachusetts, which appear among the top six slots.
Along with Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., these airports are in the Northeast, where lockdowns, social distancing and quarantine policies were among the strictest throughout the crisis, perhaps meaning fewer people were flying in.
Denver International in Colorado was the only airport in the West to crack the top 10. The other higher-ranking airports are in the Midwest (Akron-Canton Airport in Ohio and Green Bay Austin Straubel International in Wisconsin) and the South (Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International in Florida, Lubbock Preston Smith International in Texas and Yeager in West Virginia).
As for Newark’s big improvement — the New Jersey airport had the lowest on-time rate among the 100 busiest airports in summer 2019, so it had the biggest room for improvement — Schulz says it was impressive but most likely short-lived.
"It’s likely a function of reduced runway traffic, and it probably is not realistic to expect numbers anywhere near that low going forward," he says.
As for Newark, despite having the biggest on-time rate increase between summer 2019 and summer 2020, 37 airports had better arrival rates last summer.
Summer 2019 on-time rate
Summer 2020 on-time rate
|1||Newark, NJ: Newark Liberty International||61.5%||91.3%||48.3%|
|2||New York, NY: LaGuardia||66.2%||92.1%||39.1%|
|3||Canton, OH: Akron-Canton||64.8%||86.2%||33.0%|
|4||White Plains, NY: Westchester County||69%||91%||31.8%|
|5||Fort Lauderdale, FL: Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International||68.8%||90.2%||31.0%|
|6||Boston, MA: Logan International||71.1%||92.2%||29.7%|
|7||Lubbock, TX: Lubbock Preston Smith International||72.6%||91.9%||26.5%|
|8||Denver, CO: Denver International||72.5%||91.5%||26.2%|
|9||Green Bay, WI: Green Bay Austin Straubel International||74.1%||93.5%||26.2%|
|10||Charleston, WV: Yeager||69.9%||88.2%||26.1%|
|11||Evansville, IN: Evansville Regional||71.8%||90.4%||25.8%|
|12||New York, NY: John F. Kennedy International||71.5%||89.8%||25.5%|
On-time rates improve at each of the busiest airports — except 2
Although airports in Alaska and Hawaii hold seven of the bottom 10 spots, it’s worth noting that some of them started with above-average on-time rates.
For example, Fairbanks International Airport at No. 92 only saw an 8.1% increase between summer 2019 and 2020, but it went from 85.2% to 92.1%, which is hardly a poor performance. (The average on-time rate across the 100 largest airports in summer 2019 was 76.2% for comparison, so all but one of the bottom 10 spots already had better-than-average on-time rates.)
Only Alaska’s Juneau International Airport and Hawaii’s Hilo International Airport showed a decline in on-time rates. In a reverse of Newark, Hilo Airport had the best on-time arrival rates in summer 2019, so it had the least opportunity for growth among the 100 airports examined.
One possible explanation could be that Americans were hesitant to travel beyond the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia in 2020. Hawaii had some of the most stringent COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements in the nation. And in Alaska, nonresidents traveling to the state last summer who didn’t get a COVID-19 test beforehand were charged $250 at the airport for one, which could have impacted the decision to head there.
Led by an 85.6% drop in Duluth, Minn., average flight delays down at each of the 100 airports
When you consider that 46 of the 50 airports with the largest average delay drops saw wait times of 6 minutes or less, that’s significant. After all, time is a precious commodity to travelers.
Seven airports — led by Duluth International in Minnesota, Westchester County Airport in New York and Green Bay Austin Straubel International in Wisconsin — saw average delays drop by more than 80% in summer 2020 compared to the summer before.
Newark Airport in New Jersey not only had the lowest on-time arrival rate in summer 2019, but it also had the highest average delays that summer, 35.1 minutes. That plummeted to 5.6 minutes in summer 2020, leading to an 84% drop.
Surprise, surprise: Hilo Airport had the lowest average delays in 2019 — along with the best on-time arrival rates — so it makes sense that the Hawaii airport saw the lowest decrease in delays year over year.
"I hope all those running our airports will take some time to see what lessons might be able to be learned from this crazy anomaly of a year," Schulz says.
Average delay in summer 2019 (by minutes)
Average delay in summer 2020 (by minutes)
|1||Duluth, MN: Duluth International||18||2.6||-85.6%|
|2||White Plains, NY: Westchester County||25||3.8||-84.8%|
|3||Green Bay, WI: Green Bay Austin Straubel International||20.2||3.1||-84.4%|
|4||Newark, NJ: Newark Liberty International||35.1||5.6||-84.0%|
|5||New York, NY: LaGuardia||27.3||4.4||-83.7%|
|6||Boston, MA: Logan International||22.5||4.3||-81.0%|
|7||Fargo, ND: Hector International||18.7||3.6||-80.9%|
|8||New York, NY: John F. Kennedy International||25.7||5.4||-79.1%|
|9||Fort Lauderdale, FL: Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International||23.1||5.5||-76.3%|
|10||Burbank, CA: Hollywood Burbank||10.2||2.4||-76.0%|
|11||Buffalo, NY: Buffalo Niagara International||18.1||4.4||-75.8%|
|12||Lubbock, TX: Lubbock Preston Smith International||17.1||4.2||-75.3%|
Planning on flying this summer? Here are 5 things to know
As travel plans resume, airports get busier and rules continue to change, the most important tip for this summer is to be patient.
"When it comes to travel in the next few months, understand that things are going to be kind of a mess," Schulz says.
To help you navigate the new normal of summer travel, keep these strategies in mind.
Be prepared for confusion
Check the policies of the airlines and destination when you book, and again right before your trip if anything changes.
"It will be important to do some homework to understand what the rules are for different airlines and hotel chains, and even the various cities that you may visit," Schulz says.
Even still, there may be frustrating moments or you might get conflicting information from customer service. So give yourself extra time to get where you’re going, and make sure all your testing and/or vaccine proof is in order if applicable.
Consider travel insurance
If you’re planning a big trip, paying a bit more for a travel insurance policy could be worth it for peace of mind. Just be sure to confirm how the insurer handles COVID-19-related trip interruptions, such as if you or a member of your party gets sick or is exposed to someone who has tested positive. Not all policies will include coverage for a pandemic, so read the fine print carefully.
Flexible policies may start to fade away
During the pandemic, airlines and hotels showed a lot of leniency around cancellation and change policies, but don’t expect that to last forever.
"It won’t happen immediately, but I suspect that it won’t take too long before airlines and hotels go right back to their prepandemic, often frustratingly inflexible ways," Schulz says.
In other words, don’t assume that if you have to quarantine or postpone your trip, that you’ll get a full refund, as was mostly the case last year.
Take advantage of new travel credit card offers
If you haven’t looked for a new airline credit card in a while, now would be a great time to do so, Schulz says.
"Issuers and airlines are teaming up to offer stronger sign-up bonuses than we’ve seen in some time in hopes of catching the eye of folks who are itching to go spend and travel as the pandemic winds down," he says.
Use up accumulated points and miles
Credit card travel rewards tend to lose value over time, so the best advice is to use them sooner rather than later — especially in light of the losses incurred by the travel industry.
"Since so few people traveled last year, there’s a glut of old points and miles just waiting to be used, and it is possible that airlines may start to devalue those points more in order in search of greater profits," Schulz warns.
If you can redeem those points and miles for travel soon — as in, this summer — it’s probably a good idea. But if you’re not quite ready to travel, think twice before redeeming your points for gift cards or merchandise.
"They don’t give you much bang for your buck typically," Schulz says.
ValuePenguin analysts used airport arrival data for the 100 busiest U.S. airports from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) to determine the airports with the largest improvements in on-time arrivals and average delays between summer 2019 and summer 2020. For this analysis, researchers considered June, July and August to be summer months.