There’s a nearly 3 in 10 chance your winter holiday flight won’t arrive on time

FeaturedTravelTrending

Written by:

Flying during the holidays is a necessary evil for many travelers — evil because flight delays and cancellations can turn festive travelers into frustrated ones.

But is flying during the winter holidays worse than at other times of the year? The latest LendingTree analysis of on-time arrivals, cancellations and other flight outcomes since 2014 confirms that winter holiday flights are the least reliable compared to other times of the year.

In fact, if past trends — especially last year’s performance — are any indication, almost 3 in 10 flights won’t arrive on time this holiday season. See what other holiday flight facts are revealed.

  • On-time arrivals are less common during the winter holiday than other major holidays. From 2014 to 2022*, just 71.5% of domestic flights arrived on time during the winter holiday — generally three weeks from mid-December to early January. That compares with 79.1% across the 2014-to-2022 period.
  • An on-time arrival isn’t the only worry during the winter holiday. From 2014 to 2022, 2.8% of winter holiday departures were canceled — higher than the 1.8% across the period regardless of the day or holiday.
  • The 2022 winter holiday was the worst dating to 2014 for on-time arrivals and cancellations. Between Dec. 15, 2022, and Jan. 4, 2023, just 60.2% of flights arrived on time and 8.2% were canceled.
  • Independence Day 2023 saw the lowest rate of on-time arrivals dating to 2014. 69.9% of Independence Day holiday (June 30 to July 9) flights arrived on time this year — the lowest for the holiday in our analyzed period.

*LendingTree analysts didn’t include 2020 data because it deviated from trends amid the start of the coronavirus pandemic. For example, 90.6% of 2020 Independence Day flights arrived on time — more than 9 percentage points higher than the next closest year since 2014. Each 2020 holiday period followed similar patterns, so we excluded that year’s data from any 2014-to-2022 averages.

If an on-time flight to your winter holiday destination is on your wish list, you might want to temper your expectations.

Our examination of seven holiday periods tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (specific dates vary by year) confirms what you might already suspect: Winter holidays are the toughest on travelers. In fact, only 71.5% of domestic flights arrived on time during the winter holiday between 2014 and 2022 (minus 2020, since the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on travel makes that year an outlier). Compared to the 79.1% overall on-time percentage, you’re 10.1% less likely to arrive on time during the holidays.

Put another way, if past years’ trends hold true, it will mean that nearly 3 in 10 flights will experience a delay during the 2023 holiday period. Or, perhaps, it could be even worse than that, given that the percentage of on-time winter holiday arrivals is on a downward trend — 66.3% in 2021 and just 60.2% in 2022.

“The winter holidays are a crazy, crazy time at airports,” says Matt Schulz, LendingTree chief credit analyst. “Not only are huge numbers of people flying, but they’re doing so at a time when weather can be volatile and disruptive to travel. Sure, you get bad weather other times of the year, but little impacts travel more than snow or ice.”

Worst on-time arrival rates

Holiday On-time arrivals, 2014 to 2022
Winter holiday 71.5%
Presidents Day 73.2%
Independence Day 77.8%
Memorial Day 79.5%
Thanksgiving 82.4%
Easter 82.5%
Labor Day 83.6%

Source: LendingTree analysis of U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) data. Note: 2020 data is excluded from this analysis.

The winter holiday is a bad time for cancellations, too, but not the worst

An even bigger holiday headache than delayed flights is cancellations that leave you stranded in crowded airports. But flight cancellations are also 1 percentage point higher during the winter holiday than the year as a whole — 2.8% versus 1.8%, respectively.

However, another holiday took the top spot for most cancellations — Presidents Day, with a 4.4% cancellation rate. A huge winter storm in 2021 was the main driver of this higher percentage, with 12.9% of flights canceled.

That said, the past two winter holidays saw significantly higher cancellation rates than in pre-pandemic years (5.4% in 2021 and 8.2% in 2022). Meanwhile, only 1.0% of flights were canceled during the Presidents Day 2023 holiday.

Surprisingly, Thanksgiving had the lowest percentage of cancellations of all the tracked holidays, at just 0.8% of flights.

Worst cancellation rates

Holiday Cancellations, 2014 to 2022
Presidents Day 4.4%
Winter holiday 2.8%
Labor Day 1.6%
Independence Day 1.4%
Memorial Day 1.4%
Easter 1.0%
Thanksgiving 0.8%

Source: LendingTree analysis of U.S. BTS data. Note: 2020 data is excluded from this analysis.

Full look

Winter holiday
Departures
Arrivals
Year Total flights On time Delayed Canceled On time Delayed Diverted
2014 325,282 71.0% 27.4% 1.6% 69.8% 28.4% 0.2%
2015 322,601 72.3% 25.7% 2.1% 72.7% 24.9% 0.3%
2016 315,907 70.9% 27.2% 1.9% 70.8% 27.0% 0.3%
2017 333,932 75.1% 23.7% 1.2% 75.6% 22.9% 0.2%
2018 443,096 78.3% 20.7% 1.1% 77.8% 20.9% 0.3%
2019 453,869 78.6% 20.5% 0.9% 78.8% 20.1% 0.2%
2021 394,450 65.6% 28.9% 5.4% 66.3% 28.0% 0.3%
2022 389,403 60.4% 31.3% 8.2% 60.2% 31.2% 0.4%
Overall 372,318 71.5% 25.7% 2.8% 71.5% 25.4% 0.3%

Source: LendingTree analysis of U.S. BTS data. Note: 2020 data is excluded from this analysis.

If last year was any indication, 2023 holiday travelers could be in for a rough ride. Dating to 2014, the 2022 winter holiday had the worst performance for both on-time arrivals (just 60.2% of flights) and cancellations (8.2% were canceled). Note that there are slight variations in BTS holiday periods. For example, the 2022 season covered Dec. 15, 2022, through Jan. 4, 2023, while the 2019 season covered Dec. 14, 2019, to Jan. 3, 2020.

For 2022, the worst delays occurred on Dec. 23 and Dec. 24, when more than 4 in 10 flights had delayed departures. Cancellations were also at their worst on those two days, with a staggering 27.7% and 21.6% of flights canceled, respectively.

Not only are those typically heavy travel days for people who want to arrive at their destination in time for Christmas Day, but the weather also wasn’t cooperative in 2022, disrupting thousands of flights.

Winter holiday 2022
Departures
Arrivals
Flight date Day of week Total flights On time Delayed Canceled On time Delayed Diverted
12/15 Thu 19,506 70.0% 29.1% 1.0% 67.2% 31.6% 0.3%
12/16 Fri 19,944 67.2% 31.4% 1.4% 64.7% 33.7% 0.2%
12/17 Sat 17,772 70.0% 29.4% 0.6% 70.1% 29.2% 0.1%
12/18 Sun 19,366 74.7% 24.7% 0.6% 75.4% 23.8% 0.2%
12/19 Mon 19,496 74.0% 25.1% 0.9% 73.5% 25.4% 0.1%
12/20 Tue 19,163 74.3% 23.9% 1.7% 74.9% 23.3% 0.1%
12/21 Wed 19,604 66.6% 30.5% 2.8% 66.6% 30.3% 0.2%
12/22 Thu 19,904 46.9% 39.8% 13.3% 43.8% 42.2% 0.7%
12/23 Fri 19,867 28.7% 43.6% 27.7% 27.2% 44.5% 0.6%
12/24 Sat 15,365 33.6% 44.8% 21.6% 35.3% 43.0% 0.2%
12/25 Sun 15,738 43.9% 35.8% 20.3% 45.7% 33.8% 0.2%
12/26 Mon 19,228 42.0% 37.0% 20.9% 42.0% 36.9% 0.2%
12/27 Tue 18,977 49.9% 33.5% 16.6% 51.7% 31.4% 0.2%
12/28 Wed 18,868 59.2% 25.5% 15.3% 61.2% 23.3% 0.2%
12/29 Thu 19,079 65.3% 21.6% 13.1% 65.9% 20.9% 0.1%
12/30 Fri 19,041 73.7% 25.6% 0.7% 74.5% 24.6% 0.2%
12/31 Sat 15,435 72.2% 26.5% 1.3% 72.6% 25.3% 0.9%
1/1 Sun 16,930 71.0% 27.3% 1.7% 71.8% 25.6% 0.8%
1/2 Mon 19,220 59.5% 36.1% 4.4% 57.2% 37.4% 1.0%
1/3 Tue 18,771 60.5% 35.7% 3.8% 59.0% 36.5% 0.7%
1/4 Wed 18,129 62.8% 32.5% 4.7% 62.5% 32.5% 0.3%
Average 18,543 60.3% 31.4% 8.3% 60.1% 31.2% 0.4%

Source: LendingTree analysis of BTS data. Note: 2020 data is excluded from this analysis.

While it’s hard to predict what this winter holiday travel year will be like, data from one of the most recent 2023 holidays doesn’t bode well. The lowest rate of on-time arrivals for Independence Day dating to 2014 was this year. For Independence Day 2023 holiday flights from June 30 to July 9, 69.9% were on time.

“I think it’s a sign that we could be in for a rough holiday season,” Schulz says. He attributes recent holiday delays to ongoing staffing issues with airlines, airports and air traffic controllers. “I think that’s part of what we saw on July Fourth, and there’s plenty of reason to believe those issues will rear their ugly heads this winter, too.”

For the early part of 2023, holiday travel performance was hit or miss. Presidents Day 2023 saw a lower cancellation rate than in past years (just 1.0%), while 1 in 5 Easter flights (from April 2 to 16) were delayed. Memorial Day (from May 22 to 31) fared better with a 0.4% cancellation rate.

Independence Day
Departures
Arrivals
Year Total flights On time Delayed Canceled On time Delayed Diverted
2014 159,737 77.1% 21.0% 2.0% 76.2% 21.5% 0.4%
2015 160,927 77.9% 21.3% 0.8% 77.7% 21.1% 0.3%
2016 156,388 79.0% 20.0% 1.0% 79.0% 19.6% 0.3%
2017 157,011 81.3% 17.9% 0.8% 80.6% 18.3% 0.3%
2018 212,197 81.8% 17.2% 1.0% 81.4% 17.4% 0.2%
2019 215,897 76.9% 21.0% 2.1% 75.8% 21.7% 0.4%
2021 195,868 73.1% 25.0% 1.9% 72.7% 25.0% 0.4%
2022 196,504 78.4% 20.3% 1.3% 78.7% 19.8% 0.2%
2023 198,075 70.5% 26.9% 2.5% 69.9% 27.2% 0.4%
Overall 181,816 78.2% 20.5% 1.4% 77.8% 20.6% 0.3%

Source: LendingTree analysis of U.S. BTS data. Note: 2020 data is excluded from this analysis.

Of note: During the first two days of the Labor Day 2023 period (Aug. 30 and 31), 80.3% of Labor Day holiday flights arrived on time — which would be a record low. BTS data for the September portion of this holiday’s period (through Sept. 6) was unavailable at the time of research, but here’s a glimpse.

Labor Day
Departures
Arrivals
Year Total flights On time Delayed Canceled On time Delayed Diverted
2014 123,154 85.5% 14.1% 0.4% 84.0% 15.4% 0.2%
2015 121,644 85.6% 13.9% 0.6% 84.7% 14.6% 0.2%
2016 118,698 86.8% 12.8% 0.4% 86.1% 13.4% 0.2%
2017 121,184 82.4% 13.7% 3.9% 81.8% 14.0% 0.2%
2018 166,969 83.5% 15.4% 1.0% 82.1% 16.6% 0.3%
2019 172,652 83.9% 13.2% 2.9% 84.0% 12.9% 0.3%
2021 150,425 82.2% 15.2% 2.6% 82.5% 14.7% 0.2%
2022 152,995 82.8% 16.6% 0.7% 83.5% 15.6% 0.2%
2023 41,426 80.3% 16.8% 2.9% 80.3% 16.5% 0.3%
Overall 140,965 84.1% 14.4% 1.6% 83.6% 14.6% 0.2%

Source: LendingTree analysis of U.S. BTS data. Notes: 2020 data is excluded from this analysis. 2023 data covers the first two days of this holiday period (Aug. 30 and 31), but the rest (through Sept. 6) was unavailable at the time of research.

To get through the hectic holiday travel season, do some pre-flight strategizing to set yourself up for the best possible flight experience.

  • Aim for early flights. If planes are running late or carriers are having technical difficulties as the day goes on, it can set off a chain reaction of delays. “But you’re less likely to run into delays if you have the first flight of the day,” Schulz says.
  • Look for nonstop flights. They’re not always an option, and the airfare isn’t always the cheapest when available, but nonstop flights can be a great way to avoid delays. If you have an airline card that earns airline miles, you can use them to help offset the cost.
  • Consider getting TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. Though TSA PreCheck is pretty commonly held these days, it can still be a time-saver. “Even if those lines are a little longer than they used to be, they’re still going to be a heck of a lot shorter than the standard security line in most cases,” Schulz says. Tip: See if your credit card offers a statement credit for purchasing one of these benefits.
  • Make yourself as comfortable as possible. “When you’re traveling, it’s always a good idea to keep some essentials with you in case you get delayed,” Schulz says. Dress in layers in case you get warm or chilly, bring along something to keep your mind occupied (including a charger for your electronics) and make sure you have any medications you might need on hand. Tip: Having airport lounge access, which is a benefit of some higher-tier travel credit cards, can be a game changer when you’re stuck.
  • Have a game plan if your flight is significantly delayed or canceled. Plenty of people know about rewards points and similar travel card perks, but far too few know about others that can be helpful, Schulz says. For instance, many travel credit cards come with baggage delay protection, rental car insurance, trip delay/cancellation insurance and other benefits that can help you avoid headaches when traveling. “If you don’t know what your card offers, check it out before you leave,” he says. “And if you’re having trouble finding information about them, call the card issuer and ask.”
  • Don’t lose your cool. “Yelling at the person behind the counter who is trying to help you — and who has probably been talked down to multiple times already today — isn’t going to help,” Schulz says. “Take a deep breath and be kind.”

LendingTree researchers analyzed U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) airline on-time and cancellation data from 2014 to 2023. Per the BTS, a flight is considered on time if it’s operated less than 15 minutes later than the scheduled time in the carriers’ computerized reservations systems (CRS).

Specifically, we analyzed the following holidays as tracked by the BTS:

  • Presidents Day
  • Easter
  • Memorial Day
  • Independence Day
  • Labor Day
  • Thanksgiving
  • Winter holiday

When comparing holidays from 2014 to 2022, we excluded 2020 because the data deviated from trends amid the start of the coronavirus pandemic. We also didn’t include 2023 because two of the holidays hadn’t occurred at the time of research, but we included separate mentions.

We used holiday periods as set by the BTS. For example, the 2022 winter holiday covered Dec. 15, 2022, to Jan. 4, 2023.

Source

This article originally appeared on LendingTree and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

More from MediaFeed:

Like MediaFeed’s content? Be sure to follow us.

AlertMe

This article originally appeared on LendingTree and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

Like MediaFeed's content? Be sure to follow us.