Summer Air Travel Survival Guide

A departure board in the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport shows travel problems caused by a systemwide computer outage, Wednesday, June 20, 2007, in Chicago. AP

An airline is a peculiar business, because the fortunes of the company often run in inverse proportion to the well-being of the customers. Travelers love to pay fire-sale prices to fly on big planes with lots of empty seats. But that usually happens only when airlines have too many flights and are spiraling into financial turmoil. When the airlines are healthy, it's usually because their planes are flying nearly full, and they can command stiff prices for every cramped seat — which makes travelers grumpy.

Well, don't look now, but after five major bankruptcies and billions of dollars in losses over the past six years, the nation's airlines are finally poised to earn a decent profit in 2007. And yes, travelers will feel the pinch. Carriers like Delta, United, American, and US Airways have slashed the number of seats on over-served domestic routes, trimmed their fleets, and shifted many of their biggest planes to more profitable overseas destinations.

The upshot for fliers: It's going to be a bumpy summer travel season.

A computer malfunction shut down all of United's departing flights for two hours Wednesday.

"Last year was a tough one for the flying public," Marion Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, said recently. "This year is off to an equally tough start."

Actually, it's worse. The proportion of flights arriving on time has tumbled to 71 percent so far in 2007, the lowest level since the Department of Transportation starting tracking performance 20 years ago. Planes are flying nearly as full as they ever have. And summer, the busiest travel season, is usually when traveler frustrations boil over. "The whole system is more vulnerable to shocks, and that could impact consumers," predicts Bill Warlick, an airline analyst at Fitch Ratings. "The passenger experience is going to be tested."

Where will the hassles be worst? To find out, U.S. News designed an exclusive Airport Misery Index that ranks airports according to a combination of on-time performance and load factor — the percentage of seats filled with passengers. Using data from the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics, we ranked 47 large airports and 53 regional airports to determine which have the best and worst combination of delayed planes and crowded flights. The complete rankings are at www.usnews.com/airtravel.

The U.S. News index confirms the suspicions of many frequent travelers. Big "hub" airports that carry lots of connecting traffic — like Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Chicago's O'Hare — rank among the worst for late departures and crowded flights. And crowded planes go hand in hand with delayed flights: The majority of airports with delays above the median also have load factors above the median.

But travelers can also gain some insights from the index that might make their summer travel a little easier:

Smaller airports are generally better: The catch, of course, is that there are relatively few nonstop flights from regional airports, and getting to most destinations requires a connection. But on routes where nonstops are available, the smaller the airport, the easier the trip. There are nonstops to Los Angeles from both San Francisco and Oakland, for example, and while San Fran offers more choices, the Airport Misery Index shows that flights out of Oakland are less full, with on-time performance nearly 8 percentage points better. In Houston, on-time performance is about the same at both nearby airports, Hobby and Intercontinental. But flights out of Hobby are only about 58 percent full, compared with a 79 percent load factor on planes leaving Intercontinental.

On connecting flights, it matters which hub you fly through: Airlines often match one another's fares — but not necessarily the experience at connecting-hub airports. If you have a choice between flights that go through either Charlotte or Memphis, for instance, pick Memphis: On-time performance there is 14 percentage points higher, and planes are less crowded, too. (The disparity probably reflects problems at US Airways, which has a hub at Charlotte and is struggling with operational snags after a merger with America West.) Baltimore is a good connecting hub, with 77 percent of flights on time and load factors below 70 percent. Newark is lousy, mostly thanks to clogged airways around New York; only 61 percent of flights depart on time, and planes are 76 percent full. And whatever you do: "Avoid O'Hare at all costs," warns Michael Boyd of the Boyd Group, an aviation consultancy. The huge airport's storied miseries bear out: Just 58 percent of flights depart on time, and planes are 76 percent full.

Smaller planes tend to be less crowded: It's counterintuitive, because a smaller cabin tends to feel more cramped. But you're more likely to sit next to an empty seat on a regional jet or commuter aircraft than on a larger jet. Among second-tier markets — typically served by smaller planes — there are 23 regional airports with load factors below 70 percent. Only 13 large airports fall below that mark. As an example, separate BTS data show that the 100-seat Embraer 190, a popular jet for serving smaller markets, runs about 65 percent full. The most modern, 189-seat 737, by comparison, flies about 75 percent full. And some Embraers even have wider seats than 737s. For fliers who think big planes are more comfortable, it's time to upgrade your thinking: Smaller is often better.

Make contingency plans: No matter how well you plan, there's still a reasonable chance you'll arrive late, get stressed out and end up doing battle with your airline. In addition to basic precautions like arriving early and following the Transportation Security Administration's packing guidelines, develop plans in case something goes wrong. Research flight options and make other preparations in case your flight gets canceled. Dress in layers, and follow other tips for surviving a flight that might end up stuck on the tarmac for an hour or longer. And set reasonable expectations. "Flying gets a bad rap," says Boyd. "You're flying through the sky in a metal tube, which is getting more crowded than ever. But it's not the ticket to Guantanamo that some people make it out to be."

More on coping with air travel, including an airport performance calculator, experts' tips, and a video, is at www.usnews.com/airtravel.

By Rick Newman
© 2007 U.S.News & World Report, L.P. All rights reserved
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