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Delta Air Lines, Inc. (DAL), United Continental Holdings Inc (UAL): Will Your Flight Arrive on Time This Summer?

Delays ahead?

On busy summer travel days, it’s very easy for minor problems (often weather-related) to cause major headaches at these airports. For example, in March of this year — a lighter travel month — approximately 80% of flights in the U.S. arrived on time (officially, any flight that arrives within 14 minutes of the scheduled time is considered on time). However, at New York’s JFK Airport, that figure was 77%; at LaGuardia, it was 73%, and at Newark, it was just 67 %.

If you have to fly through one of the busiest airports in the country this summer, your best bet is to drag yourself out of bed and fly early in the morning. When delays hit the busiest airports they tend to “cascade”, getting worse throughout the day. This is because there is no spare capacity to catch up once delays creep into the schedule.

For example, in April, flights scheduled to arrive before 1 p.m. at 29 of the busiest airports in the U.S. arrived on time more than 80% of the time. However, flights scheduled to arrive between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. were on time less than 70% of the time. At Newark Airport — one of United Continental Holdings Inc (NYSE:UAL)’s largest hubs and often the most-delayed airport in the country — morning flights were near the national average in terms of timeliness, but nearly half of all flights scheduled to arrive after 4 p.m. were late!

Bring a book (or movie)!

If you are lucky enough to be avoiding the most congested airports this summer, you have a good chance to get where you are going in a timely fashion, as airlines have been continually pruning their schedules for the past several years. This has reduced delays in many mid-sized cities that have significantly fewer flights today than they did a few years ago.

By contrast, airlines are still cramming as many flights as they can into the busiest airports in the country. On the heaviest travel days, inclement weather or any other disruption can cause massive cascading delays at these airports, leading to nightmarish delays in the evenings. If you can use alternative airports to get where you’re going, the extra driving time might save you a lot of aggravation. If not, your best bet is to fly early in the day.

On the other hand, if you are flying through busy airports in cities like New York or Chicago during the afternoon or evening this summer, my advice to you is: bring a book!

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The article Will Your Flight Arrive on Time This Summer? originally appeared on

Adam Levine-Weinberg is short shares of United Continental Holdings (NYSE:UAL) and is long Sep 2013 $33 Puts on United Continental Holdings. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

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