Departure Delays At These 25 Airports Cost Passengers Billions of Dollars and Thousands of Years

These 25 airports were the worst offenders when it came to departure delays last year, costing passengers over $3.8 billion in lost time.
13 minute read | 9/23/19Sept. 23, 2019
Departure Delays At These 25 Airports Cost Passengers Billions of Dollars

Airport departure delays seem inevitable, especially during the busy holiday travel season. Between the weather, mechanical issues, missing crew, and air traffic control delays —  if you plan to travel by air, you'll probably see "delayed" on the departure board at some point during your journey. These delays are a nuisance that cost holiday travelers not just time, but money and stress as well.

But when you zoom out and look at the collective impact all these individual delays have on passengers each year, the numbers are staggering. Collectively, passengers are spending hundreds of years waiting out delays in each of the country's major airports.

FinanceBuzz analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to better understand the impact of airport delays on passengers and to help you minimize interruptions to your holiday travel. We took a look at the busiest U.S. airports to see where passengers were spending the most time delayed, waiting for take-off. We looked at total passengers departing from each airport, the percentage of flights delayed, and the average length of the delay to calculate our metric and rank the airports.

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Passengers spent over 1,000 years waiting out delays at O'Hare

Chicago O'Hare tops the list for the worst delays — passengers spent a collective 1,133 years delayed on departure at ORD in 2018. If that seems impossible to believe, here's the math behind that staggering number:

  • There were 33,152,904 passengers who departed from ORD last year.
  • 25% of flights from the airport were delayed or cancelled.
  • That means approximately 25% of those 33 million passengers — or 8,288,226 million people — were affected by delays at just this one airport last year.
  • The average delay at ORD was 71.85 minutes, making the collective time passengers were delayed 595,509,038 minutes or 1,133 years.

Atlanta came next on the list with a collective delay time of 991 years. The number of passengers who were delayed at Atlanta's airport was actually higher than at Chicago O'Hare (45.7 million passengers versus 33.2 million passengers), but the average delay was shorter (60 minutes versus 72 minutes), making the collective time that passengers spent delayed at ATL lower.

Dallas/Fort Worth and Denver also each had passengers collectively spending over 700 years waiting for delayed departures last year.

Of airports that made our list, two New York City-area airports had the longest average departure delays. LaGuardia and Newark both averaged 76 minutes.

The 25 major US airports where passengers spent the most time delayed

Airport Collective time passengers were delayed (in 2018) Average departure delay Percentage of flights delayed or cancelled
1 Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD)

1,133 years

72 minutes

25%

2 Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)

991 years

60 minutes

19%

3 Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)

872 years

67 minutes

24%

4 Denver International Airport (DEN)

792 years

63 minutes

22%

5 San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

654 years

68 minutes

24%

6 Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)

651 years

60 minutes

19%

7 Orlando International Airport (MCO)

617 years

70 minutes

23%

8 Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)

601 years

76 minutes

26%

9 Boston Logan International Airport (BOS)

551 years

74 minutes

24%

10 Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT)

542 years

62 minutes

22%

11 McCarran International Airport (LAS)

540 years

59 minutes

22%

12 LaGuardia Airport (LGA)

484 years

76 minutes

24%

13 Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)

450 years

57 minutes

20%

14 Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)

425 years

58 minutes

18%

15 John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)

422 years

75 minutes

21%

16 Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL)

398 years

68 minutes

23%

17 George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)

393 years

72 minutes

18%

18 Philadelphia International Airport (PHL)

377 years

71 minutes

21%

19 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP)

370 years

72 minutes

16%

20 Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI)

346 years

60 minutes

24%

21 Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW)

341 years

72 minutes

16%

22 Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA)

330 years

74 minutes

21%

23 Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW)

323 years

50 minutes

33%

24 Miami International Airport (MIA)

289 years

69 minutes

21%

25 Tampa International Airport (TPA)

264 years

67 minutes

21%

What causes these delays?

You might assume most delays are caused by bad weather, but when we analyzed the reported cause of delays, weather accounts for just a small percentage — no more than 4% of delays at any of the airports we examined. Delays due to infrastructure and operations were much more prevalent.

National Aviation System delays, defined by the DOT as "delays and cancellations attributable to the national aviation system that refer to a broad set of conditions, such as non-extreme weather conditions, airport operations, heavy traffic volume, and air traffic control" account for 20% or more of delays at the airports on our list. Newark, a hub for United Airlines, is particularly plagued by National Aviation System delays — 57% of delays at EWR are attributed to this cause.

Carrier delays, where "the cause of the cancellation or delay was due to circumstances within the airline's control (e.g. maintenance or crew problems, aircraft cleaning, baggage loading, fueling, etc.)," also account for a high percentage of delays across airports.

Causes of departure delays by airport

Airport Air carrier delay Weather National Aviation System delay Arriving aircraft late Arriving aircraft canceled or diverted
Chicago O'hare International Airport (ORD)

17%

3%

37%

31%

11%

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)

23%

4%

33%

34%

5%

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)

21%

4%

29%

34%

12%

Denver International Airport (DEN)

25%

3%

28%

38%

6%

San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

17%

2%

49%

26%

6%

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)

26%

3%

35%

30%

5%

Orlando International Airport (MCO)

28%

2%

31%

33%

6%

Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)

12%

2%

57%

18%

11%

Boston Logan International Airport (BOS)

21%

2%

34%

31%

10%

Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT)

21%

3%

23%

36%

16%

McCarran International Airport (LAS)

27%

2%

26%

41%

4%

LaGuardia Airport (LGA)

16%

3%

42%

23%

16%

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)

26%

2%

31%

36%

6%

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)

22%

2%

46%

26%

4%

John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)

20%

2%

37%

27%

13%

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL)

29%

2%

31%

32%

6%

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)

20%

4%

40%

27%

8%

Philadelphia International Airport (PHL)

21%

3%

36%

27%

13%

Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP)

24%

4%

29%

34%

8%

Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI)

26%

3%

24%

35%

13%

Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW)

25%

4%

25%

38%

7%

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA)

22%

3%

28%

31%

15%

Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW)

24%

2%

21%

40%

13%

Miami International Airport (MIA)

29%

3%

33%

28%

7%

Tampa International Airport (TPA)

30%

3%

28%

33%

6%

Fixing the operations and infrastructure issues at U.S. airports

With so many delays being caused by non-weather issues, what does the future hold for passengers? The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that travel demand will continue to grow over the next ten years and that this air traffic growth will be concentrated at major hub airports. While the FAA is working to make improvements to ease congestion and delays, it is predicting that even with the planned improvements, there will be "severe congestion" at ATL, EWR, JFK, LGA, and PHL airports in 2020.

Plans to address the overcrowding include building new runways and moving more flights to off-peak hours and secondary airports. More than anything, the FAA is counting on improvements to air traffic control procedures and technology to ease congestion and reduce flight times. The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is slated to be fully implemented across the U.S. by 2025. NextGen moves air traffic control from a radar-based system to a GPS-based system, which is predicted to improve the use of airspace.

The FAA says 15,000 hours of delays have already been avoided due to reroutes based on weather and congestion. But before you start celebrating: On the same page, it also states that the average time of a delay in 2018 was the same as in 2017, despite the improvements that have been made.

The cost of airport delays

Beyond costing us our sanity, these delays have real economic impact, too. Using the latest "value of travel time savings" put out by the Department of Transportation, a metric that tries to put a monetary value on the time we spend traveling, the per-person cost of an hour of personal travel by air is $33.20.

Using that metric, delays cost passengers at O'Hare last year an incredible $330 million dollars. Adding up the hours of delays at all 25 airports on our list, the cost of the extra travel time tops $3.8 billion for the delayed passengers. This figure doesn't take into account missed travel activities or increased spending at the airport on food, drinks, and parking, which all add significant additional costs.

The costs of delays don't just impact the passengers who choose to travel — the threat of delays also keeps people from flying. A survey by the U.S. Travel Association found that people avoided 38 million plane trips in 2013 due to frustration with the flying experience. The cost of that lost air travel was estimated at $35.7 billion to the U.S. economy annually.

What can delayed passengers do?

If you feel like delays are out of your control, you're not entirely wrong — but you're also not totally out of luck. There are a few things you can do to ease the burden if you plan to travel this holiday season.

Know your rights

There are no comprehensive consumer laws or protections in the U.S. when it comes to air delays. The only rule airlines have to follow is specific to tarmac delays. For flights departing a U.S. airport, airlines cannot keep you on the plane, on the tarmac, for more than three hours for domestic flights or four hours for international flights. During this time, airlines are required to provide you with a snack and water (but only after two hours), working bathrooms, and updates about the status of the delay every 30 minutes.

If you happen to be flying from a U.S. airport to an airport in the European Union (EU) on a flight operated by a European-based carrier, you may be covered by an EU law known as EU 261. Under EU 261, you could be eligible for compensation of up to 600 euros, refreshments, and overnight accommodations if you're delayed.

Protect yourself with travel insurance

Since U.S. airlines aren't required to compensate you for delays, it's a good idea to take measures to protect yourself — just in case.

One simple and cost-effective way to do this is to book your plane ticket using a credit card that offers trip delay insurance. For example, if you book your ticket with the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card and your flight is delayed more than six hours, you can be reimbursed for the expenses you incur (meals, hotel stay, etc.), up to $500 per eligible ticket.

Get more comfortable with delays

Delays can be costly and uncomfortable. Hours sitting around in those cramped seats at your gate and wandering the terminal hallways for some decent food that won't kill your vacation budget can feel interminable.

Airport lounges can be a refuge in a sea of miserable, delayed passengers. If you're flying economy (as most of us do), you can still access lounges. And though they're usually viewed as a luxury, lounges can actually save budget travelers a ton, especially when delayed. Lounges typically offer free food, free beverages (often including alcohol, in case you want to drink your delay away), and sometimes showers to freshen up.

Many credit cards now offer Priority Pass lounge access as a cardmember benefit. The exact benefit varies by card, including how many guests you can bring in and how often often you can visit.

If you want more lounge options, some American Express cards, like the Platinum Card, also offer access to the swanky Centurion lounges.

Bottom line

The collective time passengers spend delayed at airports every year is astonishing. Passengers collectively spent hundreds of years delayed last year at each major airport included on our list. These delays cost travelers billions of dollars each year, and despite efforts to improve air travel infrastructure, there's little relief in sight.

Methodology

We analyzed publicly-available data from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the 45 busiest airports in the U.S. based on passenger volume. We calculated the total number of minutes passengers (collectively) spent delayed, ranked airports based on this calculation, and then narrowed the list down to the 25 airports with the most collective delay time.

We looked at data sets for the percentage of on-time departures, average airport delay in minutes, number of departing passengers, number of departing domestic flights, and causes of delays during 2018.

The DOT defines a delayed flight as one which departs or arrives more than 15 minutes from its scheduled time. Departure performance is based on departure from gate. Airlines report monthly numbers and cause of flight delays to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. When multiple causes are assigned for the delay, each cause is prorated based on the number of delayed minutes it is responsible for.

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