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Best and Worst Airports for Delays 2010

Seattle Airport

Don Wilson/Courtesy of Port of Seattle

Everybody knows that weather can slow things down at the airport. But some travelers sense that weather might also be—well, just a handy excuse.

“The slightest rain sprinkle at San Francisco’s airport can delay flights for hours,” says Bay Area native Dan Howard. But as a public relations director in Utah, Howard now frequents Salt Lake City Airport, which he describes as “magnificent in its resilience.” How’s that? “Even in a driving snowstorm,” he says, “the airport remains open and nearly 900 flights a day go unaffected.”

According to the latest stats, Howard’s experience is pretty accurate. Every year, Travel + Leisure gathers numbers from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics to find the best—and worst—airports for on-time performance. This year, Salt Lake City was No. 3 among least-delayed airports, while the drizzle-vulnerable SFO was No. 6 among the pokiest.

This information, of course, is critical when you’re planning a trip or counting on making a connection. So how does BTS collect this info? The organization tracks airports by the percentage of flights that depart at least 15 minutes behind schedule (in this case, between July 2009 through June 2010).

The good news: overall, even the worst airports are doing a little better. Only two of the most-delayed airports make you wait more than 25 percent of the time. In fact, across the board, almost every entry on the best and worst lists boosted its on-time performance scores, at least by a little.

Newark, for instance, climbed out of its No. 1 worst slot from 2009 to reach a more respectable No. 4. Now you have only a 22 percent chance of being late, compared to a dismal 30 percent in 2009. LaGuardia, Dulles, and Philadelphia managed to get off the worst list altogether, while Houston, Charlotte, and Seattle made it back into the best Top 10 this year.

There are ways for you to improve your on-time odds at any airport too—by choosing the right departures. At all the airports, on-performance is highest before 9 or 10 a.m., while the tendency to run late is much higher after 5 p.m.

For some airports, though, that witching hour comes even sooner. “You can’t fly out of O’Hare any time past 3 p.m.,” says New Jersey optometrist Dan Press, who has fallen into O’Hare’s notorious time warps several times over the years. Again, it might be that weather. “There must be crazy weather at 20,000 feet that causes delays you can’t see or won’t even hear about on the Weather Channel,” he says.

So for each city in our Top 10s, we pinpointed the time of day when you have a 90 percent or better chance of leaving on time—as well as the time of day when your chances, shall we say, drop significantly.

How bad can it get? O’Hare’s neighbor, Midway, had an alarming 100 percent chance of departing late by 10 p.m. Here’s hoping you packed a coat that can be rolled into a pillow.

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