August 14, 1998 -- Poor Joey says: Fly Early, Stay Sane.
The naked truth of that aphorism is in the numbers published by the Department of Transportation. Book a flight early in the day--sometimes very early--and you stand a decent chance of getting an on-time departure. Fly in the afternoon and the odds of delay increase dramatically. Fly in the evening, after work, and you're almost guaranteed to be on a late flight.
Want to see how it works? Check out these airport-by-airport snapshots:
ATLANTA Catch a flight from Hartsfield before noon and it'll depart on time more than 80 percent of the time. After 6 p.m., however, on-time operations plummet and as many as one in three flights are delayed.
CHARLOTTE Leave before 8 a.m. and you stand a 92 percent chance of departing on time. You've got just a 50-50 chance of leaving on time between 7 and 9 p.m.
CHICAGO O'Hare, the nation's busiest airport, is just fine before nine (around 80 percent on time in the morning), but it slips markedly as the day goes on. After 6 p.m., the place is a mosh pit and as many as half the flights leave late.
CINCINNATI Nine out of ten flights leave on time before 8 a.m. Three of ten flights depart late after 7 p.m.
DALLAS/FORT WORTH The nation's best major hub for on-time performance is nearly flawless (90+ percent) before 8 a.m. Schedules are less reliable after 4, when on-time performance drops into the 70s.
DENVER A startling 95 percent of Denver's flights leave on time before 8 a.m., yet on-time departures drop as low as 60 percent after 6 p.m.
DETROIT With an overall on-time rating of 56.4 percent, there's no good time to fly from Detroit Metro. However, on-time performance is highest--around 75 percent--between 7 and 9 in the morning. Abandon all hope after 4 p.m., when as many as 60 percent of the flights run late.
HOUSTON Bush Intercontinental is top notch before 9 a.m., when on-time performance is over 90 percent. After 6 p.m., as many as three in ten flights run late.
LOS ANGELES LAX is the closest there is to an exception to the rule. On-time performance is 90 percent or better before 10 a.m. Performance drops off in the evening, but the worst hours to fly are actually between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., when one in three planes departs late.
NEW YORK Newark is always tough, but depart before eight in the morning and you have an 85 percent chance of leaving on time. Evenings are a disaster, especially between 7 and 10, when just 40 percent of flights leave on time. Kennedy runs fine until noon (85 percent or better), but slumps as low as 52 percent after 6, when most of the transatlantic overnight flights depart. LaGuardia runs at 80 percent on-time or better before 11 a.m., but collapses after 4 p.m., when as many as half of the flights run late.
MINNEAPOLIS Another all-day disaster, where 40 percent of the daily schedule runs late. The sole window: before 7 a.m., when on time departures occur about 82 percent of the time.
PITTSBURGH It runs great before 11 a.m., operating on time at least 80 percent of the time. Between 7 and 10 p.m., however, almost half of the flights run late.
SAN FRANCISCO Fine before 10 a.m., when at least 85 percent of the flights run on time. But from noon to 10 p.m., your chances of an on-time flight are just 50-50.
ST. LOUIS Get on a flight before 8 a.m., when more than 80 percent of the planes leave on time. After 3 p.m., as many as 40 percent of all flights are delayed.
We could talk for hours about why this pattern exists--it's all about the hub-and-spoke system and the domino effect of delays--but why bother?
Just remember what Poor Joey says: Fly Early, Stay Sane.This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.