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America's most stressful airports
Hassle-free holiday travel depends on which places you fly in and out of
By Lauren Sherman
updated 9:17 a.m. MT, Wed., Dec. 10, 2008
If you're one of the millions of people planning to board a plane during the holiday season, rest well knowing that — in terms of flight delays — this year is predicted to be much less stressful than last year.
That's mostly due to the large decrease in flights for the tail end of 2008. Also, fewer people are flying during the holidays this year, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA), an organization of independent clubs that provides travel services to consumers.
That's all good news. Unfortunately, flights are more likely to be full.
That means in a region like the Northeast, where air traffic is heavy and major airports lack sophisticated facilities — they're in need of renovations and often lack the space to accommodate all the passengers they receive — planes are more likely to be 100 percent full or overbooked, says Seth Kaplan, managing partner at Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based industry trade publication Airline Weekly.
The problem is the same year-round, just exacerbated over the holidays. Because of the high volume of flights and other aforementioned problems, it's no surprise that Philadelphia International, John F. Kennedy International, Newark International and LaGuardia International are four of the five airports with the worst record of flight delays. Chicago O'Hare, the only Midwest airport in the top five, tied for the second spot with JFK.
Behind the numbers
To rank America's most stressful airports, we looked at the percentage of on-time arrivals and the percentage of on-time departures at 32 of the country's major airports for the period of September 2007 to September 2008. We then ranked them from worst to best in terms of punctuality. All data were provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation in its November 2008 "Air Travel Consumer Report."
Only reportable airports were included in the Department of Transportation's analysis. Reportable airports include those that account for at least 1 percent of the nation's total domestic scheduled-service passenger enplanements, which is 6.51 million passengers annually.
In Philadelphia, which ranked at No. 1, 28.1 percent of arrivals clocked in late, while 20.2 percent of departures took off after they should have. The city's main air hub has a bevy of problems, from old, small facilities to overcrowding.
"The biggest factor is airspace," says Kaplan. He says air routes are a lot like highways: they're usually busy. And New York's and Philadelphia's are the busiest.
But redesigning airspace is a task the government hasn't yet been willing to take on, due to excessive red tape. Redesigning airspaces entails adding on more routes where flights can travel and determining at what altitudes they can fly. That's all controlled by the government and has a lot to do with national security — thus the slow change. An alternative option for airports like Philadelphia, says Kaplan, is to build a newer, bigger runway and more gates.
"Upgrading the facility will create significant improvements," he says. Most recently, Charlotte/Douglas International Airport in North Carolina has attempted to reduce delays by building a third runway, which is set to open in 2010.
Less stress out west
It's understandable why airports like JFK and O'Hare have problems; they're major hubs. But why does Los Angeles International Airport — better known as LAX — report on-time arrival numbers 10 to 15 percent higher than those represented in the top five, despite the fact that it's just as busy, receiving 62 million passengers in 2007? JFK only saw 48 million passengers travel through that same year, according to Geneva-based trade group Airports Council International.
Again, it's about space, says Kaplan. LAX occupies 3,500 acres, which means more runways, more gates and more room overall. Logan International Airport in Boston, by contrast, is just 2,384 acres — and its percentage of delays is higher. At Logan, arrivals were delayed 20 percent of the time; for departures, it was 14.6 percent.
Of course, there is the argument that it's not the airport one should point a finger at, but the seemingly incompetent airlines.
Unfortunately, when it comes to arrival- and departure-time stress, the accusation doesn't quite, ahem, fly. Sure, special circumstances, such as Feb. 14, 2007's legendary JetBlue backup at JFK — in which travelers spent hours, sometimes days, waiting to board a flight — take place. But in general, the stress over arriving or departing on time has more to do with the airport than the airline.
"Those are very exceptional events," Kaplan says of the JetBlue incident. "It's the everyday delays — inefficiency in the overall system — that are more of a concern."
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