Most travelers expect to have virtually no control over whether their flight departs on time. That's especially true during the holidays. Last year, the number of on-time flights in November and December dropped to their lowest levels in five years.
But a piece of information printed on one's ticket can actually help predict the likelihood of a delay-free trip this season: the scheduled arrival time.
In the past five years, 86.2 percent of November and December holiday flights that were scheduled to arrive between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. arrived on time. The breakfast hour had the highest punctuality of any Department of Transportation-measured time slot.
Fast forward 13 hours, and it's a different story. When flights were scheduled to land between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., only 67.5 percent made their target, proving the old saw about the early bird and the worm.
"Getting up early and catching that first flight out is still the best thing to do," said Doug Church, communications director for the National Air Traffic Controller's Association. "If you can stomach it."
Other good times to arrive include between 6 a.m. and 6:59 a.m., and 1 p.m. and 1:59 p.m. Flights between of 4 p.m. and 4:59 p.m. are less likely to arrive on time.
Behind the numbers
Forbes.com studied data released by the Department of Transportation on the percentage of on-time arrivals at specific points in the day. To gauge the promptness of flights during the holiday season, we looked at the months of November and December in the five years since 2003. Morning flights — those arriving between 6 a.m. and 12:59 p.m. — had a higher percentage of timely arrivals, at 82.6 percent, than late afternoon, evening and overnight flights. On-time performance steadily dwindled as the day progressed and bottomed out by the evening. Flights scheduled to arrive between 8 p.m. and 8:59 p.m. arrived on time in only 67.5 percent of cases.
Mornings are best because very little air traffic has built up around airports, making departures and arrivals smoother and swifter. As the airspace gets more crowded, air-traffic controllers delay flight departures and take longer to clear arriving flights for landing.
"Arrivals in this airport between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. are either incredibly early departures from incredibly local places, or they've sat there from the night before, so late flights have had a chance to catch up," says Stephen Abraham, air traffic controller and National Air Traffic Controllers Association representative at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. "Most airlines have a big departure bank by 5 p.m."
The reliability of flight arrivals declined steadily as the hours advanced but picked up for the hours between 11 p.m. and 5:59 a.m., during which time 74.2 percent of flights arrived on time. This is in part because late night flights are rarer, so the skies are less congested. In addition, many of these long haul "red-eye" flights have anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour of extra time built in to their schedules to account for delays.
Weather delays are more likely to strike in the afternoon, another reason to fly early. In the summer months, late afternoon thunderstorms are a prime reason flights don't arrive on time. While this is less of a factor in the winter, overall, weather conditions tend to be calmer in the morning.
In major hubs, scheduling patterns designed to coordinate air traffic from all over the country can sometimes magnify delays. In airports like Dallas/Ft. Worth, JFK and Los Angeles International Airport, for example, numerous flights may be bunched around the same arrival and departure times to facilitate easy connections for passengers from many different planes.
"If you fly to Dallas, American Airlines might schedule the system so flights all arrive between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. and then all depart at 8:30 a.m. or 9:30 a.m.," says Abrahams, who adds that this often causes congestion.
Indeed, only 62 percent of Dallas/Ft. Worth arriving flights and 61 percent of departing flights were on time in December 2007.
Finally, diminished staffing in many air-traffic control towers due to budget restraints and large numbers of retirements mean that fewer staff are available to manage the same amount of traffic. Abrahams says that no matter how clear the skies are, fewer people in the tower translates to fewer timely landings and departures.
"Our job is all about managing volume, and you can only manage a certain amount," says Abrahams. "Sometimes you keep planes from taking off, sometimes you keep them in the air — but you've got to manage volume."