You’ve seen enough John Hughes movies to know by now that holidays are notoriously bad for air travelers. But a new study proves it’s true: Airline cancellations are bad at Thanksgiving, and even worse at Christmas.
And worst of the pack are regional airlines — those smaller airlines with names like Delta Connection or United Express — who serve routes between smaller cities and major hubs. In fact, the cancellation rate of flights at regional airlines are three times higher than at a large airline.
These findings are the result of a new study by Milecards.com, which crunched five years of Thanksgiving week and December air travel data reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The site used the data to predict which airlines and routes will pose the biggest problems during the holiday travel season, traditionally the time of year airlines see the most passengers — and cancellations.
Why so many cancellations? “Weather is the primary culprit,” concludes Brian Karimzad, director of Milecards.com. But while winter weather affects many northern destinations, major storms can have widespread impact on operations, and not all airlines will respond to these challenges in the same way.
The study suggests that when an airline has to choose which flight to cancel, routes served by regional jets are often the first chosen for cancellation, so fewer passengers are impacted.
That’s bad news for Americans living in smaller cities, where it’s nearly impossible to avoid regional carriers.
Among the major carriers, JetBlue and Spirit had the highest cancellation rates during the holidays, but their cancellation rates are still below those of regional airlines.
Here’s an insider tip: With a natural advantage, Hawaiian Airlines has the fewest cancellations during the Christmas holiday. But unless you’re flying to Oahu, this won’t be much help.
What to know when you plan your holiday trip:
- Christmas flights are cancelled 5 times as much as Thanksgiving flights. Overall, 2.4% of flights are cancelled at Christmas compared with only 0.4% at Thanksgiving. So if you choose one holiday to visit Grandma, make it Thanksgiving.
- December 26 and 27 are the worst days for cancellation. These two days have historically been “costly and miserable” for thousands of flyers. Consider scheduling your flights outside of this window.
- Honolulu, Oakland and Seattle are the best airports with the fewest cancellations nationwide. Salt Lake City and Denver also have very low flight cancellation rates.
- At Thanksgiving, the routes between Sacramento and San Francisco are the most cancelled, along with the Greensboro to New York route. These routes get cancelled a high 8% of the time.
- At Christmas, avoid flights between Newark and Pittsburgh, Manchester or Washington, which are the most cancelled flights during the Christmas season — with nearly 20% of flights getting the axe. “All of these destinations are within a day’s drive of Newark, but when storms strike, rental cars are scarce and driving conditions treacherous,” says Karimzad.
- No surprise here: New York and Chicago airports are worst for holiday cancellations. Now that is just like the movies.
What to do if your holiday flight is delayed or canceled
While it’s hard to predict if your flight will be delayed or canceled due to winter weather or other operational anomalies, here are a few things to keep in mind in planning a holiday getaway.
✓ Know your carrier. When booking your flights, be on the lookout for flights operated by regional carriers. The designation ‘Operated by’ or ‘DBA’ next to the airline name will be a tipoff. These flights tend to be at a higher risk for cancellation.
✓ Know where you can rebook. Southwest, Spirit, JetBlue and Frontier have no agreements with other domestic airlines to rebook passengers on another airline if one of theirs is canceled. If you get delayed, you can only fly one of their later flights. Even on the major carriers, the days are long gone when you could demand to be booked on another airline. American and Delta no longer have interline agreements with each other. Only United has rebooking agreements with American and Delta if you really get stuck.
✓ Don’t take the first answer. Rebooking is often done by computers, and shouldn’t be considered a final answer. If your airline emails you a new itinerary, jump in the customer service line while dialing the customer service number and opening the airline’s app. Airline seat availability is fluid, and if you don’t like the new itinerary presented to you, firmly and politely pushing for alternatives is a good option. Even after you have your new itinerary, checking the app for other possibilities can sometimes yield more suitable results.
As the holiday season gets underway, the best way to avoid a holiday travel fiasco is to plan around the worst airlines, routes and dates — and then hope for the best. If you find yourself delayed, be your own advocate. Find the best alternatives, be polite and get to your destination — safely.