By Sharyn Alden
Some strange little voice buzzing in my ear — a gypsy moth, I think — warned me about the eight-flight itinerary I booked to the Caribbean last winter. I hadn’t factored in winter weather when I lazily hit “purchase” on a lovely warm October day.
Fast-forward to mid-winter and Chicago’s O’Hare airport, where I boarded the first of four flights that would take me to my warm, watery paradise: a nonstop flight to San Juan’s Luis Munoz Marin International Airport.
There were no problems on that flight or the other three that took me to my destination, but getting back, the inevitable (or evitable, depending on your sense of humor) happened. Most of the airports in the central U.S. and along the Eastern seaboard were crippled by debilitating ice and snow storms, and I was one of a few thousand travelers calling Luis Munoz Marin home for the indefinite future.
It’s quite a place, Luis Munoz Marin. I can tell you all about it. So it was no surprise when the caffeine loyalist next to me said after our fourth or fifth cup of empty stimulation, “I’d go without coffee for a year if I could fly a year without delays.”
Good luck with that. Decision Science News conducted a flight survey recently and found that 60 percent of the flights they studied experienced delays at some point. Now, 60 percent delays is far better than 90 percent delays, but still. Sixty percent?
And it’s probably little consolation to know you’re not the only one who suffers. Flight delays cost the industry billions of dollars each year, and affects a huge swath of people and services.
For travelers, delays are tangible. They cause us to miss connections, keep us away from weddings and our kids’ soccer games, and hit our wallets hard if we have to ante up for food, lodging and other sitting-around fees. You’ll never be able to eliminate flight cancellations and delays from your travel picture, but you can reduce your odds of being caught.
You can start by doing some research before booking your flights. It’s not hard to scope out delay-prone flights like the pros do. Simply go to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Reports. The most recent one will have all the domestic-delay data you’d ever want, including lists of the most frequently delayed flights and the airports with the highest incidence of delayed flights. Without going into tons of detail, you’re probably going to want to avoid that LaGuardia-Miami flight. If you want more historical detail, check out FlightStats.com.
For real-time flight-delay information, visit the FAA Air Traffic Control System Command Center. In general, airport issues are the No. 1 cause of flight delays, but weather, air-traffic congestion, limited runway space, security issues, mechanical or maintenance problems, and airline issues can cause ripples that lead to delayed flights.
Key things to know
- The earlier in the day you fly the better it can be when it comes to avoiding delayed departures. A 5 a.m. flight may make your eyeballs roll up into your head, but it’s reasonable tradeoff for a greatly decreased chance of delay. And, plus, there’s always coffee.
- Other airports besides LaGuardia are known for playing havoc with your travel plans. According to a recent Trip Advisor survey, U.S. airports that are tops in departure delays are the other two New York airports followed by Philadelphia, O’Hare, Midway, Washington Dulles, Boston Logan, Reagan/National, Baltimore, Charlotte and San Francisco. Except for the two Chicago airports, these are all East Coast airports with heavy commuter traffic. It’s easy to see how a problem at one of these airports can ripple to the others when there are weather-related delays. (What else does this mean? If you’re flying into New York, try White Plains. Connections are fewer but the laid-back atmosphere can’t be beat.)
What You Can Do to Increase Your On-Time Departures:
- Common sense would tell you to not book more than two flights on one itinerary unless you have very little choice – and common sense would be right. Case in point: my Caribbean adventure last winter. Four flights each way to the southern Caribbean was insane. You can bet I would have booked a non-stop flight if I could have – even if it cost more. Even a one-stop would have been better than a three-stop.
- Look for flights on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Traffic is typically lighter on these days and reduces your chance for flight delays. Avoid traveling the day before a peak holiday or flying over a holiday weekend.
- Fly early in the day … we already said that. The overnight period gives equipment and crews a chance to catch up, and severe storm cycles are more apt to crop up afternoons and evenings.
- Take matters into your own hands when you’re delayed. When your flight is delayed and delayed again, what are you going to do? Wait it out? Maybe. But if you’re experiencing a significant delay, check the schedules of other airlines to try to find an earlier flight. Ask the airline to endorse your ticket on the other airline. If your flight is cancelled, ask for a refund. If you feel you need help, AirCare from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection comes with 24/7 travel assistance that will work with the airlines on your behalf. You can’t have too many weapons in situations like these.
- Book travel insurance. The old saw is that you only know the value of insurance when trouble strikes. All the times you buy insurance and don’t collect will seem insignificant when insurance comes to your rescue. BHTP’s AirCare is $25 and can autopay flight-delay claims, plus help get you rebooked. It’s worth it for the peace-of-mind alone.
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, based in Madison, Wis.