The reasons not to book a 6am flight are obvious the moment the alarm sounds.
Yet catching the first flight of the day is frequently one of the top pieces of advice experts offer to avoid flight delays.
Turns out the data backs up the tip.
Even amid the worst of last summer’s air travel meltdowns, at least 80% of flights departed on time between the hours of 6am and 11am at the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, according to June 2022 figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
By midday, on-time departures fell to between 70% and 80% of flights. By late afternoon, merely 60%–70% of flights left on time.
The contrast was even starker in Boston and Las Vegas. At both airports, nearly 90% of flights departed punctually first thing in the morning, while fewer than half were on time by nightfall.
“Roughly, you’ve got a 30% less chance of getting a long delay or cancellation if you go out in the morning,” said Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial airline pilot and current spokesperson for the flight-tracking site FlightAware.
Here are five key reasons why waking at the crack of dawn (or even earlier) could help you skip the headaches of long airport delays this summer.
No waiting for an inbound plane
At most hours of the day, your timely departure is based on your plane arriving at the airport on time.
Save for serious, multiday disruptions, though, waiting for the plane to get to to the airport shouldn’t be a factor when it comes to morning flights. Your aircraft is likely at the gate before you even go to bed the night before.
“And then you know the crew is there, everybody’s there,” Bangs explained. “You’re not waiting on anything.”
If you need to be rebooked, you have more options.
When it comes to flight trouble, the early bird gets the empty seat.
This summer travel season, planes are expected to be full most of the time. Travel firm AAA predicts a volume of passengers that “could be one for the record books, especially at airports”—and at a time when airlines are reducing flights on some routes to keep traffic manageable.
More travelers plus fewer flights equals sparse options for travelers who need to be rebooked.
Morning flyers who get a jump start on searching for a new seat have the whole day’s slate of flights at their disposal, putting them at less risk of being stranded overnight.
Late in the day, on the other hand, “if you get messed up … there might be flights, but it’s just so hard to get a seat now,” according to Bangs.
The National Weather Service reports that thunderstorms happen most often in the afternoon and evening, and especially during the spring and summer months.
Complicating the work of the Federal Aviation Administration’s already short-staffed air traffic controllers, these storms can fuel weather-related delays even in cities where the skies are clear.
“If it’s a big line of storms, they’ve got to start routing traffic,” explained Capt. Shem Malmquist, a Boeing 777 captain at a major U.S. airline, and professor on the College of Aeronautics faculty at the Florida Institute of Technology. “Everyone’s going to be routing through gaps in these lines [of storms].”
“That adds flight time,” Malmquist continued, “and also constrains traffic into very narrow corridors, which affects a lot of traffic across the country at the same time.”
A quick check of the FAA’s national airspace status page on a recent May afternoon showed what he means. Thunderstorm-fueled ground stops were in place in Denver, Orlando, and Tampa, contributing to “air traffic management” delays mounting in Ft. Myers, Miami, Palm Beach, and Fort Lauderdale.
(Credit: Federal Aviation Administration)
The problems get worse when lightning strikes close enough to an airport that ground crew members have to take shelter and stop fueling planes, Malmquist said.
Pilots and flight attendants operate under a combination of FAA and union regulations capping the hours they can work and fly.
Delays caused by weather, air traffic control, mechanical problems, or any other issue that crops up over the course of the day can eat up precious hours in crew members’ shifts. By the end of the work day, those crews could be required by law or union contract to take a break.
“They might not even be able to take that next flight,” Bangs explained.
If alternate employees can’t be found, cue a flight cancellation or further delays.
The snowball effect
Considering that planes and crews often fly to numerous cities over the course of a day, numerous opportunities arise to get off-schedule by the end of the night.
“If there’s a mechanical delay in one city,” as Malmquist put it, “that’s going to lead to that flight being delayed, promulgating down the line and affecting everything else as it goes.”
That’s one more reason to brave the pre-dawn wake-up.
“As painful as it is,” Malmquist said, “the fact is that you’re less likely to see any kind of disruption.”
Just don’t forget to set your alarm.