An Analysis of Flight Delays in the United States

Analysis of Flight Delays

Hopping on a plane is a common part of modern-day living. Whether flying for business, visiting family or friends, or taking a well-deserved (all-inclusive) vacation, most people in America have found a reason to fly somewhere at one time or another.

While airplanes are the fastest and safest way to travel, that doesn’t mean the process doesn’t come with its own set of annoyances. From crowded security checkpoints to cramped seats, there are many things that people dislike about air travel. But perhaps nothing can ruin a travelers day more than finding out that their flight has been delayed. 

We know that flight delays are events that happen all too often, for any number of reasons, all around the country. With that in mind, we wanted to see if we could find data on flight delays and then analyze it for trends in when and where they occur the most. 

Thankfully, the United States Bureau of Transportation Statistics tracks all kinds of data relating to flights, airlines, and airports, including delay data. We decided to look at the last five years worth of data to find which days, months, airports, and airlines experience delays the most. Once we analyzed it all, we knew we had to share this information with the world in the hopes that our research can help travelers plan out their flights and vacations to minimize delays so they can get to their destinations faster! 

An Analysis of Flight Delays in the United States - Domestic Flight Delays by Day of the Week 2014-2018

One thing passengers have to consider when booking their air travel is which day of the week is best for travel. Due to the availability of seats on certain routes as well as typical demand, prices typically change for the same flight from one day to the next. While pricing is the primary consideration when deciding which day of the week to fly, travelers that place a high value on their time would do well to consider how likely they are to experience a delay on certain days, as well as how long that delay will be. We added the total number of delays and the total minutes of those delays on every day of the week together to find average delay lengths.

In the last five years, Friday has been the day of the week with the most total flight delays, followed closely by, of course, Monday. On the other end of the spectrum, we found that Saturday has the fewest delays, and by a surprisingly wide margin, experiencing them at a rate that represents only 71% of Friday’s total. In terms of average delay length, every day of the week is within three and a half minutes of one another, with Saturday having the shortest delays on average and Monday the longest. 

An Analysis of Flight Delays in the United States - Domestic Flight Delays by Month 2014-2019

Having evaluated the days of the week, we wanted to look at how the different months of the year stack up against one another. Using the same approach as above, we were able to find that February and August – exactly six months apart – have experienced 7,000 more delays than any other months, and over 30,000 more delays than September, the month with the fewest delays. 

While February and August are the months where the most total number of delays happen, those delays are actually on the lower-middle end of the scale in terms of average length. April and June are the two months where delays are the longest on average, and both months are part of a four-month stretch during the summer months where delays stretch to more than 40 minutes on average. 

An Analysis of Flight Delays in the United States - Domestic Flight Delays by Day of the Month 2014-2019

We decided to take one final look at how when a person travels can impact the likelihood that their flight will be delayed, this time looking at specific days of the month. When looking at things this way we found that the worst times to travel tend to be at the start of the month, as the days with the most total delays all fall within the first 11 days of the month. The best days to travel all tend to fall in the final week of the average month, even when accounting for the fact that not all months have the same number of days. 

An Analysis of Flight Delays in the United States - Top 25 US Cities with the Most Flight Delays

Of course, when you travel is only part of the picture. Where you travel from can be just as important of a factor when it comes to avoiding delays. We dug through our data and tallied up how many total delays passengers in different cities around the country have experienced, with these totals including all airports in a given city. While we ranked these cities on the number of delays, we also decided to include how many total minutes of delays flights in these cities have undergone, as well as average flight delay length in each.  

While Atlanta is known for having America’s busiest airport in terms of flight and passenger, that city is only second in terms of how many delays travelers have had to deal with during the last five years, with Chicago taking the top spot. Rounding out the top three is the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area, which the government counts as distinct from Dallas proper. After these three cities, there is a major drop off in delay totals, with Los Angeles in fourth place having over 27,000 fewer delays than Dallas/Fort Worth. The top three cities are also the only ones with cumulative delay times in excess of 1.5 million minutes.   

An Analysis of Flight Delays in the United States - Average Flight Delay Length By State

Just for fun, we also decided to combine the data from all airports in every state together and then map out which states have the longest and shortest flight delays on average. By this measurement, people in Vermont can expect to have the longest wait times when their flight is delayed, with the average delay stretching to over 68 minutes. No other state tops the hour mark, though Wyoming is close with 59.9 minutes. Residents of Washington state can generally relax in the knowledge that even if their travel plans do get delayed it will only be by 26.62 minutes on average, the shortest amount of time in the country. 

An Analysis of Flight Delays in the United States - Domestic Flight Delays And Cancellations By Airline 2014-2019

Finally, we looked at another major element that impacts how often and how long flight delays occur, the airline passengers are flying on. Different airlines run their businesses differently, which means each has unique circumstances impacting when and why they experience delays. 

Despite being the airline that has subjected passengers to the most total delays in the last five years, Southwest was still named the top budget airline among travelers in 2018. This probably has something to do with the fact that even though their delays are frequent, they are among the shortest in the industry at just 22.88 minutes on average. Only Hawaiian – Airlines a specialty carrier operating far fewer flights – has shorter delay times. 

We also collected data on how many flights each of these airlines have canceled over the last 5 years, and while it wasn’t a surprise that American Airlines, one of the country’s biggest carriers, took the top spot. It was alarming to see how many more cancellations they have than any other airline. American’s 9,200 cancellations represent a number 1,500 higher than second place, and nearly 4,000 cancellations higher than comparably-sized carriers like Delta and Southwest. 

While cancellations can be a downer at the start of a trip, it is worth remembering that even with delays, it is almost always much faster to fly somewhere than almost any other mode of transportation. We hope that this information can help travelers better plan out when they want to travel, where they choose to embark from, and which airline they want to travel with. And if those travel plans include getting away for some fun and relaxation, be sure to check out to book your best vacation!