Summer is the worst time to fly in America, and this year it may prove tougher than ever.
The main runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York has been shut down for a major face-lift since March and will remain closed until July. Miami International Airport is gradually opening a mile-long terminal, but the passenger train serving it won't be operational until the fall. (For now, you can walk or catch a ride on an airport cart.) A massive new highway project is reportedly snarling traffic outside the Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport.
Construction isn't the only thing that's likely to cause airport stress. Vacationers and regular business travelers crowd airports during summer months. Thunderstorms have ripple effects on flights because they shut down critical airspace, adding to delays. Add to all of this the congestion and capacity problems that affect major transportation hubs like New York City and Chicago.
"The summers tend to be bad," says Chris Oswald, vice president for safety and technical operations at the North America office of Airports Council International, the industry association for airports.
Predicting which airports will be the most troublesome for passengers during the summer months can be tricky. Weather patterns are fickle, and construction projects, while often eyesores, don't necessarily lead to delays. Therefore, we tend to think history is the best guide.
We examined the on-time arrival and departure statistics for America's major airports, published each month by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, over the summer months of June, July and August the past three years. In total we analyzed 32 airports. Those that routinely ranked at the bottom of the list: New York City's LaGuardia (LGA) and JFK, Newark (EWR), Miami (MIA), Boston's Logan International (BOS), Philadelphia (PHL), San Francisco (SFO), Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW), and the two busiest airports in the world in terms of passenger traffic, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) and Chicago's O'Hare International (ORD).
Each year since 2007 the average percentage of flights arriving or departing on time — that is within 15 minutes of scheduled time — at each airport during the summer months has been below 80 percent.
Delays at these airports shouldn't be entirely surprising. The New York area is notorious for congested skies, and it shares airspace with Philadelphia, says Adie Tomer, a research analyst at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington. Fog often impedes punctuality in San Francisco, thunderstorms in Miami. Hub airports tend to have delays. American Airlines has hubs in New York (JFK), Miami, Dallas and Chicago. Delta Air Lines operates out of Atlanta and JFK, among other places. O'Hare and San Francisco are hubs for United Airlines.
In Chicago, the main access road into Midway International Airport is being reconstructed and repaved this summer. The city's Department of Aviation is advising travelers to budget extra time getting to the airport. Newark Airport is repaving an express road various nights this summer, which could lead to mild delays. At other airports, including Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia, officials say renovation and construction projects won't affect arrivals and departures. A spokesman at Logan airport says upgrades to a parking garage will have minimal effect on travelers.
Nonetheless, expect a busy travel season. The FAA predicts that plane traffic at the nation's largest 35 airports overall will be down less than 1 percent this summer compared to 2009, though some airports such as Dallas-Ft. Worth, LaGuardia, O'Hare, Miami, Baltimore (BWI) and Charlotte (CLT) are likely to see increases in traffic. According to the Air Transport Association — the industry group for the major carriers — expects a 1 percent increase in the number of passengers traveling on U.S. airlines each day over last summer.
The FAA employs a software tool called the Traffic Management Advisor to help minimize delays at 27 major airports, but there are a few things you can do to avoid delays and a miserable overall airport experience.
First, check the Web site of your airline and airport for delays or traffic detours. Flightstats.com also provides real-time flight data, travel planning information and traveler comments about airports. Another Web site, www.avoiddelays.com, run by the National Air Traffic Controllers, includes tips for keeping your travel experience as stress-free as possible: Avoid hubs and peak travel times, book nonstop flights (or at least avoid tight connections) and respect the carry-on requirements of your airline. The site also has advice for minimizing delays at specific U.S. airports. A frequent suggestion: Travel as early in the day as possible.
Lauren-Leigh Frum and Hillary Miller contributed reporting.