If you can stomach it, try to gun for a morning flight. These flights will pretty much more or less arrive on time. Afternoon flights, though, it turns out, are a completely different story.
FiveThirtyEight, a data news site created by The New York Times’ Nate Silver, recently culled through 6 million flights in 2013 from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, studying the characteristics of most delayed flights. Flights around 7 a.m. were the timeliest, while flights in the afternoon—say anywhere from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.—were often delayed the most, around 20 minutes or so. Bad news, in a sense, because these flights are often popular with airline customers, because, well, they don’t leave extremely early nor get in at the wee hours of the morning.
Fortunately, there’s some good news for morning risers:
The best time to fly is between 6 and 7 in the morning. Flights scheduled to depart in that window arrived just 8.6 minutes late on average. Flights leaving before 6, or between 7 and 8, are nearly as good.
But delay times build from there. Through the rest of the morning and the afternoon, for every hour later you depart you can expect an extra minute of delays. Delay times peak at 20.7 minutes—more than twice as long as for early-morning flights—in the block between 6 and 7 p.m. They remain at 20-plus minutes through the 9 p.m. hour.
Very late flights—those scheduled to leave at 10 p.m. or later—are much better. But it’s hard to find these, especially on the East Coast. Late flights represent only 2 percent of scheduled domestic departures.
It’s worth noting some of these differences seem minute. For instance, according to the piece, “a flight scheduled to depart at 10 a.m. is only 2.5 minutes more delayed on average than one that leaves at 7 a.m.” Never mind that early flights tend to be less crowded and there’s usually less traffic on the way to the airport. Who said red-eye flights were all bad?
Perhaps the worst thing about delayed flights, besides not making it to your destination in time, is that they create a ripple effect for all other flights waiting on the aircraft to arrive. If you actually end up missing the reason for your trip, you may be entitled to trip-in-vain compensation of some kind.
For more details on how Silver got his original data points and how different factors like weather and security play into a flight’s delay, don’t hesitate to check out the original article.