The Brancatelli File



February 17, 2000 -- I never speak in aphorisms. In fact, I'm not even sure I can spell aphorism. But I've been looking over the airport on-time performance ratings and I've come to an inescapable conclusion: The Early Flyer is the Least Often Delayed.

I know that sounds like something out of the Farmer's Almanac. I know that sounds like something a nagging mother would say. I know that telling a frequent flyer when to fly makes me sound like your mom, admonishing you to dress warmly and wear clean underwear.

But the truth will set you free (now there's an aphorism if ever I spoke one). And the naked truth is in the numbers published every month 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 might as well bring along a copy of the Farmer's Almanac to read because you're going to have a lot of down time.

The pattern isn't a quirk and it isn't a regional or local phenomenon. It's true nationwide, almost without exception, for the major hub airports. U.S. airlines operate best first thing in the morning--they must have listened to their mothers and had a good breakfast--and worst at the end of the day. First flights out generally run on time. Last flights out are the aviation equivalent of Waiting for Godot.

Want to see how it works without all the literary illusions and metaphors? Check out these airport-by-airport snapshots.

ATLANTA Depart from Hartsfield, the hometown of Delta and AirTran, before 8 a.m. and there's a 90 percent chance of a timely departure. Leave after 5 p.m. and as many as three out of every ten planes are delayed.

BOSTON Leave Logan before 10 a.m. and nine out of 10 flights depart on time. But 30 percent of the flights scheduled to leave between 6 and 7 p.m. run late.

BALTIMORE BWI runs like a proverbial top before 8 a.m., with an on-time departure rating above 90 percent. Leave after 7 p.m. and one in three flights is late.

CHICAGO O'Hare, where American and United battle for supremacy, runs fairly well before 9 a.m., when 80 percent of the flights leave on time. After 2 p.m. and for the rest of the day, however, about one in three flights leaves late.

CINCINNATI As many Delta flyers have learned, Delta's secondary hub here is a better choice than Atlanta. The airport registered an 88 percent on-time departure rate, according to the DOT statistics. But avoid leaving between 1 and 2 p.m., when more than 20 percent of the departures are late.

DENVER Nearly 95 percent of flights departing before 7 a.m. operate on-time at Denver International, hometown of Frontier and home to a huge United hub. Avoid departing after 10 p.m., however, when one in three planes run late.

DALLAS/FORT WORTH DFW, American's hometown airport, runs best before 8 a.m. (92 percent on-time departures) and most poorly between 5 and 7 p.m. (more than 20 percent of the departures are late).

DETROIT Detroit/Metro, Northwest's largest hub, is relatively timely before 9 a.m. (more than 85 percent on-time departures), but it sags between 2 and 5 p.m. (about 25 percent of the departures are late). Flights between 8 and 9 p.m. are also prone to delay.

HOUSTON Houston/Intercontinental, Continental's hometown airport, is great before 9 a.m., when more than 90 percent of planes leave on time. But about 20 percent of flights run late between 5 and 10 p.m.

LOS ANGELES Get out of LAX before 9 a.m., when departures run on-time about 90 percent of the time. From 10 a.m. on, however, more than two in ten flights leave late.

MIAMI Miami runs fine before 8 a.m. (more than 90 percent on-time) and dreadfully after 2 p.m., when 25 percent of the flights are late.

MINNEAPOLIS Northwest's hometown airport runs most efficiently before 8 a.m. (more than 85 percent of the departures are on time), but begins to unravel after 2 p.m., when 25 percent or more of flights depart late.

NEW YORK Maybe the reason why New Yorkers hate to leave the Big Apple is because the flights are almost always late. Newark, for example, is fine before 9 a.m. (90 percent on-time departures). Between 5 and 10 p.m., however, about 40 percent of the flights depart behind schedule. Kennedy's worst time is between 8 and 10 p.m., when more than 25 percent of the flights are late. LaGuardia is okay before 8 a.m. (90 percent on time), but dreary between 5 and 9 p.m., when about 30 percent of flights run late.

PHILADELPHIA Philadelphia is timely enough before 8 a.m. (more than 90 percent of flights leave on time), but about one in three flights runs late between 5 and 9 p.m.

PITTSBURGH Best before 8 a.m., when flights run about 90 percent on time. But US Airways' primary hub is dicey between 7 and 8 p.m., when 30 percent of the departures are delayed.

SAN FRANCISCO Get out early (before 9 a.m.), when the on-time rating is about 90 percent. Between 6 and 7 p.m., more than two in 10 flights run late.

ST. LOUIS TWA's hometown airport is great before 10 a.m. (about 90 percent on time) and less than terrific between 3 and 7 p.m., when about 25 percent of the departures run late.

WASHINGTON National is generally fine before 9 a.m., when 90 percent of flights depart on time. But about 20 percent of the departures are late between 6 and 9 p.m.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.