Best and worst flight routes in the U.S.

Drew Limsky

The airports with the highest incidence of flight delays strongly correlate with the nation’s busiest airports and air routes. Little surprise there. It’s why New York- and Chicago-area airports keep popping up on the late lists of shame. But read on to see what routes and airports do worse—or better — than expected.

Commuter Hell: Chicago to Newark

…or the reverse. Of the top six airports with the most frequent flight delays, two are in Chicago—O’Hare (ORD) and Midway (MDW)—and one is in Newark (EWR). That’s a toxic combination. Midway, in particular, has lagged compared with five years ago.

Airspace in the New York metro area is the most crowded in the nation, but the crowded skies seems to affect Newark even more than they do Kennedy (JFK) or LaGuardia (LGA), both of which have improved since 2008. Nearly 24 percent of flights are delayed out of Newark, which has the distinction of being the worst airport for lateness. For this reason, I always opt for JFK or LaGuardia over Newark. One bright spot: Newark also experiences frequent late arrivals. Which I can say, because I’m from New Jersey.

Windy City Blues: Chicago to Anywhere Else in the New York Area

Chicago Midway’s flights are delayed 20 percent of the time; O’Hare isn’t much better—lateness occurs between 18 percent and 19 percent of the time. Chicago flights to JFK and LaGuardia, though probably a better bet than Chicago-Newark, still aren’t great.

Chicago’s winter weather issues and New York’s crowded local skies—problem, again. This is obviously a big commuter route, so my advice is to live and work in one city or the other, or quit Chicago. A city with a climate that bad that is so difficult to escape from is a recipe for misery.

California Screaming: San Francisco/Los Angeles

The bane of Angelenos’ pampered existence, this short run and its reverse experience delays due to San Francisco’s visibility issues caused by foggy or rainy conditions—and because Los Angeles to San Francisco (SFO) and Oakland (OAK) is the second-busiest air route in the country. SFO actually holds the second-worst record for flight delays, with more than 21 percent of flights leaving late.

The nuisance of this California route is especially grating given that once you factor in the drive to the airport and parking to the potential delay, you might as well have road-tripped the six hours. But note that the shortest highway route isn’t the scenic coastal postcard drive, but the inland route, which is unlovely and typically experiences stretches of traffic. Keep searching: maybe San Jose (SJC) will work best for you, especially if you’re headed to scenic locales south of SF, like Carmel or Big Sur.

Snowbird Shuffle: New York/South Florida

The air corridor between the New York-area airports and South Florida is, by some measures, the busiest in the nation. When booking a flight, be mindful that JFK scores better than Newark, and that LGA bests JFK; but also note that Miami’s (MIA) record of delays is awful, the fourth-worst showing of American airports (more than 19 percent of flights are late). Ft. Lauderdale (FLL) does considerably better (15.35 percent lateness), and West Palm (PBI) has the best record of all.

Capital Caution: Washington, D.C.

Like New York, Washington depends on three major airports to move its population. And also like New York, two of its airports consistently disappoint: Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI).

So, D.C./N.Y. commuters: beware of pairing the worst of the Capital with the worst of the Big Apple. Reagan National Airport (DCA) scores much better than its brethren.

Connection Cities: The Mediocre Middle

This isn’t the place to debate the fairness of the term “flyover country.” But if you want to get from coast to coast on time, fly over Texas. The Houston hub, George Bush Continental Airport (IAH); and the Dallas hub, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), score poorly (late more than 16 percent and 18 percent of the time, respectively). Likewise, fly over Denver International Airport (DEN), too (more than 18 percent of flights delayed). Think snow, de-icing, turbulent takeoffs and landings.

Bi-Coastal Bliss: Los Angeles/New York

LAX has actually improved its on-time ranking. Of course it experiences delays, which is natural as it’s the third-busiest airport in the country (when you consider cargo traffic and other yardsticks, it’s arguably number one). But when you factor in the reality that LAX serves the second-largest population center in the U.S., it comes as a pleasant surprise that LAX is a pretty reliable place to fly out from. Credit clear skies and fine visibility: those 329 days of sunshine per year can’t hurt.

From Orange County, I always drive the extra half-hour to LAX for American’s direct flights to JFK (avoiding the Orange County-San Francisco leg; see above), and am never sorry. You can set your watch to my early-morning flights from JFK to LAX, because the arrivals from the night before have left on time. I know, because I often take those redeyes, too.

Bi-Coastal Bliss, Part 2

Of the country’s three largest metro areas (New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago), L.A. seems to manage its air traffic the best, and California’s airports do much better as a whole than its Eastern seaboard counterparts (only 35 days per year on average of measurable precipitation, blah, blah, we know, we know).

Of course, I'm well aware that some folks avoid the sprawl of LAX like the plague, so if you can get direct flights out of the small, homespun airports in Long Beach (LGB) or Orange County (SNA), do so. Compared with LAX, the rental car drop-offs and parking are closer to the terminals, and their flight delays occur 15 percent of the time or less (LAX racks up delays for slightly more than 15 percent of flights). Others swear by the modest Ontario (ONT) and Burbank (BUR) airports. But then again, LAX’s sheer number of flights give you options if you’re late, or your flight is late, or if it’s cancelled. Plus, this iconic airport did appear in “The Graduate” and “Jackie Brown,” and I've flown cross-country with many a celebrity. Just sayin'.

Bi-Coastal Bliss, Part 3

Another good option in Southern California is San Diego International Airport (SAN). The fact that it’s so close to the city center cuts down even more on your commuting time—and the experience of taking off and landing seemingly in the canyons between downtown’s skyscrapers is pretty fun or freaky, depending on whether you like that kind of thing.

Final Word: Mind the Gap

No one needs to tell savvy travelers that morning is the best time for flying, and that delayed flights start to affect each other in a cascade effect that worsens throughout the day. But if mornings aren’t feasible for you, also look at the daily flight schedule. You may want to opt for a flight after a gap in departures to avoid the cascade effect and the busiest flying time of the day: the dreaded afternoon.