There are two types of travelers: Those who arrive at the airport compulsively early (no matter what) and those who take it right down to the wire every time they fly, making it to their gate with just a few minutes to spare.
It’s easy to spot which person belongs to which camp. One is already posted up at their gate or filling their time by wandering the concourse. The other is weaving between those on-time travelers, wondering why they’re sauntering around when others clearly have a flight to catch.
For the chronically late of the world, FinanceBuzz analyzed data for the 45 busiest airports in the U.S. to find the ten worst airports to depart from if you’re running late — these are the airports where you're most likely to miss your flight if you cut it close.
We also looked at the 10 best airports if you're running behind — these are the airports where you're most likely to make your flight even if time isn’t on your side. Though you may not be able to predict the unpredictable, having an idea how your airport operates can better position you to catch your flight in time.
To determine the worst and best airports for passengers who have a tendency to run late, we analyzed 12 different metrics for the 45 busiest airports in the United States (based on total passenger departures for 2018). We looked at factors like average TSA wait times, number of departing passengers, on-time departure percentage, number of gates, estimated terminal square footage, and whether the airport offers CLEAR. We assigned each airport a rating of 1 to 5 for each of the 12 factors, then calculated a weighted average based on our proprietary methodology.
10 worst airports if you're running late
Even if you left early enough to account for traffic, you’re in the hands of the airport gods once you step inside the terminal. Of the 45 busiest U.S. airports, here are the ten worst if you’re running behind.
|Avg TSA wait time
|Avg # of departing passengers/day
|Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)
|Charlotte/Douglas International Airport (CLT)
|Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport (MSP)
|Orlando International Airport (MCO)
|Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
|San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
|Seattle/Tacoma International Airport (SEA)
|Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)
|Detroit Metro Airport (DTW)
|John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)
- Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR): EWR tops the list as the worst airport to depart from if you’re running late. Despite offering CLEAR lines, the airport’s average TSA wait time was longest at 33:53 minutes, with wait times of 15 minutes or less occuring only 3.57% of the time. In other words, expect longer TSA wait times no matter what day you plan to travel. Newark’s smaller square footage, 121 gates, and higher passenger traffic compared to our other airports ranked here puts this at the number one worst airport for late travelers.
- Charlotte/Douglas International Airport (CLT): With the ninth most passengers flying out on average each day (56,794), Charlotte/Douglas is among the larger volume airports on this list. Combine that with a 32-minute average TSA wait time and no CLEAR availability and tardy travelers might find an unforgiving airport experience.
- Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport (MSP): Minneapolis/St. Paul boasts an on-time departure percentage of 84%, which doesn’t give those running late a great shot at benefiting from a delay. An average TSA wait time of just over 30 minutes doesn’t help much either.
- Orlando International Airport (MCO): The Orlando International terminal is the fourth largest on our list and includes 129 different gates for passengers to navigate. So depending on where your gate is located, you can expect some leg work. Orlando also has the second-longest average TSA wait time: 32 minutes. Only 5.95% of the time can you expect to get through in under 15 minutes.
- Atlanta International Airport (ATL): With 63 airlines operating out of a whopping 192 gates and more than 125,000 departing passengers each day, ATL is running at its busiest for nearly half of every week. Just how busy is Atlanta? The airport saw almost 46-million domestic passenger departures in 2018. But the airport’s high on-time departure rate (82%) doesn’t help those running behind. If it weren’t for it’s 26-minute average TSA wait time, ATL would have been ranked worse for late travelers.
- San Francisco International Airport (SFO): San Francisco isn’t a small airport by any means; it’s the 14th largest on our list by total terminal size. And more than 115,000 travelers arrive and depart through SFO each day, so its high passenger traffic compared to other airports doesn’t lead to a whole lot of room as you’re running and weaving through people to catch your flight. Average TSA wait times aren’t great at 31 minutes, but the airport does offer CLEAR lanes.
- Seattle/Tacoma International Airport (SEA): Seattle/Tacoma isn’t overly large, but it does have the sixth-highest number of departing passengers each day (58,603). That means if your flight is during peak times, you might find the airport a bit snug as you make your way to your gate. Average TSA wait times aren’t the worst at 25 minutes, but the airport rarely sees delays. This is great for everyone — except those running behind.
- Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH): Depart from Bush Intercontinental, and you’ve got a three in four chance of spending more than 15 minutes in the TSA line. On average, you can expect about a 25-minute wait. However, you can possibly shave some time off if you have CLEAR Plus. Once you get through security, you’ve got the sixth-largest terminal on our list to navigate, which puts this airport as one of the worst for late travelers.
- Detroit Metro Airport (DTW): Out of the ten worst airports for late travelers, Detroit Metro has the lowest TSA wait times at 24 minutes. It’s a fairly busy airport, but the good news is CLEAR lanes are available and TSA wait times do come in at less than 15 minutes about 20% of the time. But the airport’s stronger than average percentage of on-time flight departures actually pushes this up the list of worst airports since late travelers are less likely to have their flight delayed.
- John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK): JFK gets a bad rap (the airport, not the president), but it might be for good reason. Although you have the ability to cut down your time spent in line by using a CLEAR Plus membership, you’ve got a 75% chance of getting stuck in the security line for more than 15 minutes. And the average TSA wait time is just over 25 minutes, so the odds are generally stacked against you.
10 best airports if you're running late
Out of all the days to oversleep, of course it has to be the day you need to catch a flight. Your day may not have started off that great, but if you’re departing out of one of these airports, things might not be all that bad. Here are the 10 best airports to be departing from if time isn’t on your side.
|Avg TSA wait time
|Avg # of departing passengers/day
|Hobby Airport (HOU)
|Kansas City International Airport (MCI)
|Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU)
|San Antonio International Airport (SAT)
|Nashville International Airport (BNA)
|St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL)
|Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)
|Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport (FLL)
|Indianapolis International Airport (IND)
|Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS)
- Hobby Airport (HOU): There are several factors that contribute to Hobby being the best airport if you’re running late. This Houston airport boasts the lowest average TSA wait time (just under 14 minutes) and it keeps the wait time 15 minutes or less nearly 40% of the time. The chances of catching Hobby at its busiest are pretty low, and it’s relatively small number of departing passengers each day helps the airport from getting bogged down with too many travelers. While it’s lower percentage of on-time flights might hinder those who are punctual, it can be the difference between catching or missing a flight for those running late.
- Kansas City International Airport (MCI): Kansas City International does a pretty good job at getting its flights out on time. Combine that with the fifth-largest terminal on our list and no CLEAR availability and you might be thinking the chances of catching your flight are slim-to-none. But MCI's speedy average TSA wait time of under 16 minutes and its low number of departing passengers each day makes this airport the second best if you’re running late.
- Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU): If you’re departing out of Raleigh-Durham International and rushing to catch a flight, you may have time to take a breath. While there are no CLEAR lanes, you’ve got nearly a 40% chance of breezing through security in under 15 minutes. Swift TSA lines and an airport with just 41 gates puts Raleigh-Durham at #3.
- San Antonio International Airport (SAT): CLEAR? Check. Less than a hundred gates to run past? Check. People, what about other people? Not a whole lot. The odds of your flight getting delayed at SAT are pretty low, but with an average TSA wait time of 18 minutes, you should be okay if you’re running a little behind.
- Nashville International Airport (BNA): Not all of our top ten best airports for late travelers have CLEAR lanes, but their snappy TSA lines make them ideal if you’re running late. Nashville International comes in at just over 14 minutes of wait time on average. You also have a 43% chance of making it through in 15 minutes or less. Those aren’t bad numbers.
- St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL): Another airport that hasn’t adopted CLEAR yet, but that’s okay. With just 20,431 departing passengers each day, your chances of making it through security in under 15 minutes are pretty good. And once you do, you’ll have only 18 gates to deal with, so your chances of catching your flight are pretty good.
- Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX): With the tenth most passengers flying out annually (over 20 million passengers depart on domestic flights each year), Sky Harbor is among the larger volume airports on this list. Only a small percentage of each week is the airport incredibly busy, though, and the approximate TSA wait time is just a little over 16 minutes. Talk about efficiency.
- Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport (FLL): A delayed flight can be a godsend for late travelers, and you have nearly a 25% chance your flight will be delayed when flying out of FLL. This helps, but it’s the airport’s CLEAR lanes, efficient TSA lines, and moderate terminal size that put FLL at #8 on our list. You can expect to make it through security in under 15 minutes about 30% of the week.
- Indianapolis International Airport (IND): Indianapolis International is no small airport, but it’s quick TSA lines and low number of daily departing passengers make it one of the best for tardy travelers. Unfortunately, this airport doesn’t offer CLEAR lanes but it’s also only really busy a small percentage of the week.
- Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS): Closing out our top ten best airports for late travelers is Texas-based Austin-Bergstrom International. Don’t count on your flight being delayed if you’re departing from this airport, but if you have CLEAR Plus, you shouldn’t spend much time standing in line. Otherwise, you can expect to spend about 20 minutes waiting to get through security. While this may feel like a long time if your flight is preparing to depart, AUS still ranks among the best compared to the 35 other airports that didn’t make our list.
How to make your flight (even if you're running late)
There are so many things that can go wrong that can have you playing catch up once you get to the airport — you oversleep, your rideshare driver is late, you hit traffic on the way to the airport, you get the picture. And these things can happen to all of us, even those of us who are typically punctual.
So, with that in mind, here are some tips to help you make your flight even if you're running late.
1. Get TSA PreCheck or CLEAR. Better yet, get both!
TSA wait times held the most weight in our study, and for good reason. It’s often the biggest obstacle between you and your flight. Fortunately, you can avoid those lengthy and unpredictable lines with TSA PreCheck and/or CLEAR.
Each of these services addresses different parts of the security process — TSA PreCheck speeds up the security process, whereas CLEAR Plus speeds up the ID-checking process — so having both will give you the best chance at catching your flight if time stands against you.
If you don’t yet have PreCheck or CLEAR Plus, many credit cards offer reimbursements for application and membership costs:
- The Chase Sapphire Reserve, Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, and The Platinum Card from American Express all offer up to $100 in reimbursement for the cost of the TSA PreCheck or GlobalEntry application fee every four years, making them some of the best travel credit cards for the chronically late.
- The American Express Green Card, on the other hand, offers up to $189 CLEAR Plus credit each year.
- Or, if you’re just interested in trying CLEAR, you can also sign up for a two-month free trial.
2. Travel with a carry-on only to avoid the check-in lines
If you can check-in online and can trade your checked luggage for a backpack and carry-on, you can head straight for the security line (or CLEAR and TSA PreCheck lines) once you get inside the airport.
Depending on how many people are waiting to check-in or check a bag, this can save you a significant amount of time. Not to mention, you can also save money by avoiding baggage fees.
3. Know what you packed to avoid surprises
If you don’t have TSA PreCheck and are subject to the regular TSA security line, make sure you know what you’ve packed and where it’s located in your carry-on luggage.
Aside from having to remove your shoes, jacket, and belt, you also have to remove any laptops or large electronics and food from your bags. If you place these items in an easy-to-reach location prior to heading to the airport, you won’t waste any precious time trying to fish them out from the bottom of your bag as everyone waits
impatiently patiently behind you.
You can leave early and do everything in your power to be on time, but there are certain things that are out of your control. Knowing a little bit about the airport you’re traveling can go a long way when you’re staring down the possibility of a missed flight. You can also use the right credit cards to speed up the process.