New Study Shows Riskiest Airports, Airlines for Holiday Cancellations

Cancelled Flights

••• Infographic courtesy of MileCards.com

As travelers begin to prepare for the holiday travel crush, a new report from MileCards.com finds that flights on regional airlines are three times as likely to be canceled and that New York’s airports and Chicago O’Hare are the worst candidates for cancellations.

MileCards.com studied U.S. Department of Transportation records of more than 1.5 million U.S. flights during the Thanksgiving and December holidays at the 50 busiest airports from 2010 to 2015 to identify the riskiest airlines, airports and routes for cancellations.

Regional flights are sold by airlines like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, or United Airlines, but are operated by an independent regional airline like SkyWest or ExpressJet, said the report. “The plane’s paint job and even inflight magazine will match the parent airline, and deciding whether to cancel is also something the parent airline has a say in, but it’s officially operated by the regional carrier.”

Brian Karimzad, director and loyalty program analyst for MileCards.com, says that the three regional carriers with the most cancellations were American Airlines partners PSA Airlines, at 8.3 percent; Envoy, at 3.8 percent; and ExpressJet, which flies for American, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, at 3.3 percent.

With fewer passengers than mainline flights, the major airlines are more likely to let their own mainline flights fly and cancel regional flights when faced with a choice so fewer passengers are impacted, said the report.

“PSA and Envoy aren’t in this year’s DOT statistics, since they don’t currently meet the flight volume threshold to be required to report standalone. But that will change when the new rules go into effect,” said Karimzad. “Given the ins and outs of which regional airlines appear each year, we aggregated them as one regional category. This is also more useful since many regionals fly for multiple parent airlines at once.”

Looking at the larger carriers, Karimzad said Spirit Airlines’ cancellations are bad because it’s a carrier with low frequency but lots of destinations. “so when one flight gets cancelled, the cascading effect is greater. They also admit to historically not focusing as much on reliability as they could,” he said. “It is trying to invest more in that this year with a new management team, but is transparent about the fact that its’ lower cost model limits how reliable it can be.”

JetBlue, with heavy Northeast U.S. operations, cancelled holiday flights at about two the average of major airlines, said the report. “JetBlue also operates many short flights on its own that are typically handled by regional carriers at other major airlines like United or Delta.”

But with limited operations in the Midwest and East, Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines enjoy natural advantages with almost no cancellations over the holidays, said the report. “Among the global U.S. carriers, Delta leads with a holiday cancellation rate almost 40 percent less than the average at 1 percent. Southwest enjoys a cancellation rate about half the average of all carriers.”

In looking at flights overall, those booked during the December holidays are cancelled five times as much as those around Thanksgiving. “If you have only one holiday to choose for a flight home, make it Thanksgiving,” said Karimzad.

Around Thanksgiving, the Wednesday before is the worst day for cancellations, almost two times the rate of other Thanksgiving travel days.

With 5 percent of flights cancelled December 26-27, the two days after Christmas have proven costly and miserable for thousands of fliers, said the report. “For fliers trying to get home before the holidays, December 23 and 24 have seen the fewest cancellations, while Christmas day is risky with a cancellation rate more than three times that of Christmas Eve.”

The cancellations are driven by more winter storms that devastate the network hit in late December, said Karimzad. “There have been a couple of bad storms that hit the Midwest and East and paralyzed air travel around those dates this decade. It’s a prime time of year to get big snow events,” he said.

Routes MileCards.com advises avoiding on Thanksgiving include San Francisco to Sacramento and Greensboro to New York LaGuardia, with both cancelled about 8 percent of the time. Routes to avoid during the December holidays are Newark to Pittsburgh, Manchester, N.H., and Washington Reagan flights, with flights cancelled 20 percent, 17 percent, and 15 percent of the time.

“These are the routes that saw the highest rate of cancellations during the study period. While local weather plays a role, each route’s fit in the overall airline’s operation is also a role,” said Karimzad.  

MileCards.com did the report to highlight the big disparity in performance among airports and regional versus mainline carriers when it comes to cancellations, said Karimzad. “While regional carrier nuances are well known to expert level fliers, they’re not well known among those who don’t know the inside baseball of airlines.”