What to expect from your airline and airport of choice this holiday travel season

On average, 1 out of 5 flights get delayed. In December, it’s worse.
Image: holiday air travel per airline and per airport.
Weather is the most frequent culprit when it comes to delayed flights in the winter.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

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By Nigel Chiwaya

Jeff Fleischman’s flight wasn’t going anywhere.

Fleischman, a New Jersey tech executive, was supposed to be en route to Miami for a team dinner on Dec. 8. The airplane’s broken fuel pump scuttled those plans. Five hours later, passengers were allowed to board. But the plane then had another mechanical problem.

“The pilot said this plane didn't want to leave the ground,” Fleischman said. Several hours and a standby flight later, he made it to Miami, but not before missing his team dinner.

This was his second flight issue in as many months, as inclement weather had previously grounded another trip from Newark in November.

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“These things happen. They're very frustrating and aggravating,” he said.

An estimated 47.5 million passengers will fly in the U.S. between Dec. 19 and Jan. 5, 2020, according to a holiday travel forecast from the trade group Airlines for America. While the vast majority will reach their destinations on time, flights from certain airports, including major hubs, and those operated by certain airlines are more likely to face late arrivals in December.

Since 2012, about 80 percent of arrivals are either on time or within 15 minutes of their scheduled time every year, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In December since 2012, about 76 percent of arrivals make it on time. And performance lags even more at certain hubs and certain airlines in the challenging month.

If your plane doesn’t land on time, it’s highly likely that the weather was to blame. “Weather is the most common cause of delays year round,” a spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration wrote to NBC News via email, accounting for close to 7 out of 10 delays between 2008 and 2013.

It isn’t just winter storms like the kind that snarled flights across the country for Thanksgiving: In winter, pilots are more prone to run into strong winds and low-visibility issues. Other than weather, air travel can be delayed by equipment failure, runway congestion and passenger volume.

While holiday travel can be chaotic, the summer months are actually worse for delays. June, July and August saw the lowest on-time percentage nationwide in 2018 and have been among the months with the worst on-time performance every year since 2012. Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst and a former airline executive, said that this is because the summer has both a high volume of travel and a lot of thunderstorms.

“If it's your flight that's being delayed, it's a crisis," Mann said. “But in terms of total numbers, the summer is much worse than the winter period.”

While ultimately the weather is out of anyone’s control, there are things travelers can do to make their lives easier, such as arriving earlier at the airport. LaGuardia Airport’s Twitter account encouraged passengers to arrive at least two hours prior to departure Wednesday to account for increased waits for parking, check-in and security. Mann suggests booking the earliest flight in the day to avoid cascading delays.

“If you can fly on the first flight of the day, you have the best chance of getting out on time. Woe is you if you have to fly the last flight,” Mann said.