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The Insanely Clever New Way to Avoid Flight Delays

If your flight is delayed, blame the airport, not the airline; that’s the main takeaway from a detailed statistical analysis of DOT flight data conducted by Nate Sliver on FiveThirtyEight. The piece is exhaustive, explicit, and entertaining. Silver concludes that airports at both ends of a trip—not just airlines—are the most important factors in determining whether or not a flight will be late.

The most useful results of the analysis, for most of you, is to help decide two issues: If you’re traveling to a destination with multiple airports, you should choose the airport least likely to delay you. If you have to connect somewhere, avoid hubs most prone to delays. Some airlines are better than others, but the differences are generally minimal.

The three worst airports for arrivals, with delays exceeding 20 minutes, are Newark, LaGuardia, and O’Hare; JFK is close at 19 minutes. If you’re heading to or from New York City, you’re stuck with substantial delays, with no low-delay alternative. For Chicago, Midway is only a little better than O’Hare, but for the northern suburbs, Milwaukee is a lot better. Other airports with delays exceeding 10 minutes are Philadelphia, Midway, San Francisco, and Dallas-Ft Worth.

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The three New York airports also top the list of departure delays, followed by Philadelphia, O’Hare, Midway, Dulles, Boston, Reagan/National, Baltimore, Charlotte, and San Francisco.

In a way, the results for hubbing run counter to conventional wisdom. Yes, hubs in the Northeast don’t fare well, nor does notorious O’Hare. Dallas-Ft. Worth doesn’t do as well as its location might suggest, and those of us who live in the West know to avoid San Francisco connections when we can. The big southern hubs—Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and Phoenix—do well, as expected, but snowy Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver, and Salt Lake City, along with rainy Seattle-Tacoma, show surprisingly low delay figures.

Although differences among airlines are not as large, overall, Virgin America is the fastest airline, followed by US Airways, Alaska, and Delta. Airlines at the bottom are the usual suspects: American and United. JetBlue surprisingly scores poorly, but that’s because of a terrible result for January, 2014; take that out, and the low-cost carrier looks like one of the best.

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The report goes on to explore differing delay lengths among airlines. The DOT defines “delay” as 15 minutes or more, but there’s a big difference between a 20-minute delay and a two-hour delay or complete cancellation. Thus, American, Frontier, Southwest, and United all show similar total delay percentages, but Frontier and Southwest have lots of short delays, while American and United have comparatively more delays exceeding 120 minutes, diversions, and cancellations.

All in all, many of you would find the full report intriguing, with its ingenious interactive graphics and detailed explanations. Beyond the airline delay report, FiveThirtyEight posts lots of other fascinating analyses, ranging from handicapping the NCAA final four to predicting the outcome of the upcoming British election. These folks are good at their math, their graphics, their analytics, and their writing: You can expect to hear a lot more from them in coming months and years.

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(Photo: Getty Images/Richard Wareham)

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