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America’s best and worst airports 2008

On-time departures do still happen—sometimes. Here are the airports to skip—and the ones to use—to avoid delays.
Los Angeles' (LAX) rates No. 10 on America's best — delays increased by a percentage point from 2007 at 21 percent — but was still able to hold onto a spot in our list.
Los Angeles' (LAX) rates No. 10 on America's best — delays increased by a percentage point from 2007 at 21 percent — but was still able to hold onto a spot in our list. Lawa / Wieck
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Ticket prices are rising. In-flight amenities are being slashed. And flight delays, once a mere nuisance, are starting to seem like an inevitable part of almost any trip. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), roughly 23 percent of domestic flights arrived at least 15 minutes late from January through August of this year (the most recent figures available at press time); that’s only slightly better than last year’s worst-ever on-time performance of 24 percent of flights delayed.

So who were the individual winners and losers? We gathered figures from FlightStats for airlines with 20 or more weekly flights out of major domestic airports from October 1, 2007, through September 30, 2008.

In the “worst” category, the biggest shift was at New York’s JFK, which attained the dubious honor of being tied for the No. 1 worst airport in 2007, with 35 percent of its flights delayed. But this year, its drastic improvement to 26 percent dropped it to a tie for No. 8. Miami, however, didn’t fare so well. Its delays increased by 3 percentage points, which bumped it up to the No. 3 worst airport in America.

The “best” category saw three newcomers in 2008: Seattle, Phoenix, and Washington’s Reagan National. That means, of course, that three other airports fell out of the top 10. Houston, Orlando, and St. Louis don’t make an appearance on this year’s list (though they didn’t fall so far as to be grouped among the worst airports).

The problem of delays has been exacerbated in recent years as financially struggling carriers laid off thousands of employees: there are fewer workers to unload bags, clean planes, and get passengers on their way. Still, the major causes of holdups are not new. Weather accounts for close to 30 percent of the delays during the summer months, according to Russ Chew, president and COO of JetBlue Airways. Another major reason is congested airspace. Traffic around major hubs such as New York and Chicago has become so overcrowded that airports can barely handle the overflow. And once a plane is behind schedule, it causes a ripple effect in airports across the country.

To be fair, the industry has not turned a blind eye to the problem. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is trying to ease air traffic by capping the number of hourly flights into and out of New York City’s crowded airports, and Chicago O’Hare is undergoing a massive expansion, which should ease traffic. Last April, the FAA also instituted the Open Skies Agreement, a pact between the European Union and the United States, which allows airlines to create new transatlantic routes. Over time, experts believe Open Skies could encourage airlines to create additional nonstop flights from second-tier American cities, alleviating the pressure on delay-prone hubs such as New York and Chicago to act as connecting points for Europe-bound travelers. So far, however, it’s mostly prompted U.S. airlines to increase flights to traffic-heavy Heathrow from the usual airports.

Meanwhile, American carriers, reeling from high fuel costs, decreased the number of domestic flights by roughly 10 percent this year. But most of these cutbacks occurred at smaller regional airports, and thus did little to alleviate congestion at major hubs. The full impact of the current global financial crisis on airlines has yet to be seen, but they’ll surely feel more of a pinch in the coming year, especially if business travel decreases. This could lead to even more significant cutbacks in schedules—and good news for delays—although finding a seat on an airplane might become more difficult. In addition, with fewer flights overall, more travelers have to connect rather than fly nonstop. That means there’s a greater likelihood of backups across the country. And (to complete the vicious circle) since airplanes are now packed more tightly, it’s increasingly difficult to find a seat on another carrier if you miss your connection.

So who’s No. 1? The “worst” airport is no stranger to the No. 1 ranking, but it was a pitched battle for top of the “best” list. View the slide shows to see all the winners and losers.