Avoid These Airports at All Costs
The U.S. News index confirms the suspicions of many frequent travelers. Big "hub" airports that carry lots of connecting trafficlike Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Chicago's O'Harerank among the worst for late departures and crowded flights. And crowded planes go hand-in-hand with delayed flights: The majority of airports with delays above the median also have load factors above the median.
But travelers can also gain some insights from the index that might make their summer travel a little easier:
Smaller airports are generally better. The catch, of course, is that there are relatively few nonstop flights from regional airports, and getting to most destinations requires a connection. But on routes where nonstops are available, the smaller the airport, the easier the trip. There are nonstops to Los Angeles from both San Francisco and Oakland, for example, and while San Fran offers more choices, the Airport Misery Index shows that flights out of Oakland are less full, with on-time performance nearly 8 percentage points better.
In Houston, on-time performance is about the same at both nearby airports, Hobby and Intercontinental. But flights out of Hobby are only about 58 percent full, compared with a 79 percent load factor on planes leaving Intercontinental.
On connecting flights, it matters which hub you fly through. Airlines often match each other's faresbut not necessarily the experience at connecting-hub airports. If you have a choice between flights that go through either Charlotte or Memphis, for instance, pick Memphis: On-time performance there is 14 percentage points higher and planes are less crowded, too. (The disparity probably reflects problems at U.S. Airways, which has a hub at Charlotte and is struggling with operational problems after a merger with America West.)
Baltimore is a good connecting hub, with 77 percent of flights on time, and load factors below 70 percent. Newark is lousy, mostly thanks to clogged airways around New York; only 61 percent of flights depart on time, and planes are 76 percent full. And whatever you do: "Avoid O'Hare at all costs," warns Mike Boyd of the Boyd Group, an aviation consultancy. The huge airport's storied miseries bear out: Just 58 percent of flights depart on time and planes are 76 percent full.
Smaller planes tend to be less crowded. It's counterintuitive, because a smaller cabin tends to feel more cramped. But you're more likely to sit next to an empty seat on a regional jet or commuter aircraft than on a larger jet. Among second-tier marketstypically served by smaller planesthere are 23 regional airports with load factors below 70 percent. Only 13 large airports fall below that mark.
As an example, separate BTS data shows that the 100-seat Embraer 190, a popular jet for serving smaller markets, runs about 65 percent full. The most modern, 189-seat 737, by comparison, flies about 75 percent full. And some Embraers even have wider seats than 737s. For fliers who think big planes are more comfortable, it's time to upgrade your thinking: Smaller is often better.
Make contingency plans. No matter how well you plan, there's still a reasonable chance you'll arrive late, get stressed out, and end up doing battle with your airline. In addition to basic precautions like arriving early and following the Transportation Security Administration's packing guidelines, develop plans in case something goes wrong. Research flight options and make other preparations in case your flight gets canceled. Dress in layers and follow other tips for surviving a flight that might end up stuck on the tarmac for an hour or longer. And set reasonable expectations. "Flying gets a bad rap," says Boyd. "You're flying through the sky in a metal tube, which is getting more crowded than ever. But it's not the ticket to Guantanamo that some people make it out to be."
Sources: Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics; the Boyd Group