These Are the Most Reliable Airlines During the Holidays

Which airline is late 30 percent of the time, and which is almost always on time? New data from the Department of Transportation reveals the answers.


“My favorite part of air travel is the intimacy,” said nobody ever. Airlines for America reports that an estimated 45.2 million passengers will travel on U.S. airlines during the 21-day period from Friday, December 16 through Thursday, January 5 (about 3.5 percent more passengers than the same period in 2015).

This means, on any given departure day, your travel time will depend on the collective efficiency of as few as 1.8 million other schmoes trying to get home for the holidays. That’s a lot of opportunities for a little kink to mess up yours and everyone else’s plans—and, according to new data from the Department of Transportation, your flight will be late anywhere from 15-30 percent of the time.

Using DOT data from the last three years of Christmas and Thanksgiving travel times, Forbes this time last year analyzed the punctuality of ten major American airlines. Here, rated from the highest percentage of on-time flights to the lowest, are their results:

  1. Hawaiian Airlines – 91.75 percent on-time
  2. Delta Air Lines – 86.07 percent
  3. Alaska Air Lines – 84.85 percent
  4. Virgin America – 79.37 percent
  5. United Airlines – 78.85 percent
  6. American Airlines – 77.73 percent
  7. JetBlue – 76.93 percent
  8. Southwest Airlines – 74.71 percent
  9. Spirit Airlines – 71.94 percent
  10. Frontier – 71.28 percent

Hawaiian can thank their exceptional punctuality in part to gentle winter weather around the islands. Supposing that you’re not heading there, of the remaining nine names, Delta won top marks for on-time travel, followed closely by Alaska Air, avoiding holiday delays about 85 percent of the time. On the other end of the spectrum, roughly three of every 10 Spirit and Frontier passengers can expect to be a little late.

It’s not too late to pick your holiday carrier this year based on this data, and brace yourself accordingly for the potential delays ahead. But even if you do end up in that 15-30 percent pool of passengers whose flights miss the deadline, remember that you may be entitled to compensation, depending on the circumstances.

While each airline has a different policy for handling delays caused by weather, mechanical difficulties, and other unforeseeable roadblocks, it doesn’t hurt to ask at the counter whether they your delayed carrier can offer you a food voucher, WiFi code, or other freebies while you stew in the airport. (Pro tip: while you’re waiting in line at the counter, call the airline on your phone. You will probably reach a representative quicker.)

One occasion where the government does weigh in is if you are involuntarily bumped from your flight due to overbooking. According to the DOT, if your airline bumps you and fails to provide a substitute flight at their own expense, you must be compensated with an amount equal to 400 percent of your one-way ticket fare, maxing out at $1350. This is also true if your airline provided a substitute flight that gets you to your destination more than two hours later than the scheduled time you signed up for. If the substitute flight gets you in between one and two hours after your original arrival time, you are entitled to 200 percent of your one-way fare that day, with a $675 maximum.

One last money-saving note from the Department of Transportation: If you make it to your destination but your bag is delayed, you should ask the airline to reimburse you for “reasonable expenses” incurred while they look for it. According to DOT, “Most carriers set guidelines for their airport employees that allow them to disburse some money at the airport for emergency purchases. The amount depends on whether or not you’re away from home and how long it takes to track down your bags and return them to you. If the airline does not provide you a cash advance, it may still reimburse you later for the purchase of necessities. Discuss with the carrier the types of articles that would be reimbursable, and keep all receipts.” If your luggage is lost entirely, you may be reimbursed for a maximum of $3,500 in missing possessions.

Most travelers are unaware of these rights. Just another drop in the bucket of travel secrets your airline doesn’t want you to know.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest