As I write this we’re heading into the fourth quarter of the year, with the notable packed U.S. airport times of Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up. The end of the year is also crunch time in Europe, creating plenty of airport stress on both sides of the Atlantic.
Most travelers just take their chances, picking the cheapest flight they can and hoping for the best. How much is your time worth though? And how upset will you be if you arrive 24 or 48 hours later than you planned?
There are a few ways to better your odds of getting there on time, like taking an early flight (plane and crew are already there), paying for a more flexible ticket, flying customer-friendly Southwest, or planning what your other options are if you have to bail out and go overland instead. Having your airline’s phone number and Twitter account handy can be useful too.
You can also act like a smart gambler too and start evaluating the odds. A blackjack game where the house has a 1% edge is better than one with rules that give them a 3% edge. A roulette wheel with one zero gives you better odds than one with two.
You can apply the same evaluation to airports and airlines. Who is most likely to mess things up on your next trip? And can you get any compensation for delays, cancellations, or being bumped?
Airlines With Frequently Striking Employees
If you really want to press your luck, fly through Paris on Lufthansa, Air France, or Ryanair. Le Parisien French newspaper reported that France leads the world in air delays, mostly because of regular strikes. “Between 2004 and 2016, French air traffic control agents were on strike 254 days, compared to 46 in second-place Greece.”
I’ve gone to or passed through Europe every year for the past four years. Three of those times, Lufthansa employees had just been on strike or were about to go on another one. In the past eight years, Lufthansa’s pilots have gone on strike 12 times. After the pilots finally worked out a deal, the company’s airport workers went on strike four months later this year, grounding half the airline’s flights.
Air France-KLM workers went on strike during the busy summer season this year, as did French air traffic control workers again.
This year Ryanair was the big ongoing strike story and the latest saga was a few days ago. On September 28, pilots and crews from six countries walked off the job, affecting 40,000 passengers. This followed multiple other strikes throughout the year, a July one hitting 50,000 people, after a deal reached in Ireland didn’t get accepted by other locations where they fly. Since these routes are in Europe though, there could be compensation for these cancelled Ryanair flights.
U.S. airlines have been relatively strike-free the past few years, despite threats at Allegiant and Frontier, but the robots have not been so accommodating. American Airlines had to cancel 675 flights in June because of a technical glitch, following Delta’s even bigger debacle with its aging control systems. One of several Delta IT meltdowns resulted in cancellations of 4,000 flights.
The Worst Airports for Delays… and the Best
Delta’s IT systems aside, Atlanta is not a bad airport to go through most of the time. It rates a hair above average in its delay percentage of 1.49 percent.
Of the top-5 worst, three are New York City’s. Northeast airports Boston, D.C. National, Philadelphia, and Baltimore all fared worse than average in this study too—some several times worse. The others on the poor performance list were Houston (though there was a hurricane), San Francisco, and Orlando.
The best places to fly through if you have a connection? Those would be, in order of the fewest delays, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Denver.
Worst and Best Airlines for Delays
Who actually gets you where you want to go on time? When Lufthansa is actually flying, that German efficiency kicks in and their on-time performance is high. The best at this among the major airlines, according to self-reported stats, are Qantas, Aegean, Wizzair, Vueling, Eithad, Singapore, South African, and KLM. (Surprisingly, Ryanair ranked high before this year of labor delays.)
If you look at the independent OAG annual report though, different ones rise to the top. Latin America starts looking great with LATAM and Copa Air the largest highly ranked ones. Hawaiian, Qantas, and Qatar come next, followed by Volaris, Japan Airlines, Jetstar, Alaska, Alitalia, All Nippon, Singapore, Delta, and Aegean. Rounding out the 4-star contenders above 80% on-time were Vueling, Aer Lingus, KLM, Emirates, and United.
The worst for on-time performance among the major ones worldwide by self-reported stats are Air Canada, Asiana, Air India, Westjet, Korean Air, Jet Airways, Tap Portugal, and Thai Airways.
The worst major ones on OAG’s list were Air India, Tap Portugal, Asiana, China Airlines, China Eastern, Air Canada, Philippine Airlines, AirAsia, Jet Airways, and China Southern.
Among the U.S. airlines, the ones most likely to get you to your destination on time according to OAG’s report are Hawaiian, Alaska, Delta, United, and—biggest surprise—Spirit. The worst one, by a long shot, was JetBlue. Then again, they’re most active in the worst city, New York.
Which Airlines Bump Passengers the Most?
I’ve been bumped before and that can be a good thing. Usually when the chance comes up though, I’m on a business trip or have to get home for something personal. Last time I had to give up a $1,000 compensation from Air Canada. But I arrived in Montreal on time…
If you like getting bumped, you should book on Spirit Airlines, Frontier, or ExpressJet. If you want to avoid oversold planes though, you should probably avoid them. The U.S. airlines that bumped the fewest passengers in the most recent report were Delta, Hawaiian, and United, the last one after a forcible removal that went viral forced major changes.
In the past year, fewer passengers than ever got bumped in the USA, probably in part thanks to federal rules forcing compensation. If you are involuntarily bumped, you are entitled to cash compensation and a seat on a later flight. If you are bumped and delayed at least an hour you could receive up to $1,350 depending on the delay time and the ticket price. See the rules here.
As you have probably noticed though, airlines will do whatever they can to get volunteers to give up their seats so it doesn’t come to that. They will offer vouchers, probably because some never get used, with supply and demand determining how high it will go. (They had to get up to $1,000 on that flight of mine before anyone would budge.) If nobody is raising their hand, you can get more than if 10 people agreed at the check-in kiosk to take just $200.
If you have leverage, use it. See if you can get an upgrade on the next flight, hold out for cash, or even get frequent flyer points.