Flight delays and cancellations: What to know before 2023 holiday travel

Airlines have made some improvements, but overall delay, cancellation and bumped passenger rates remain high. Here’s what you can do to prepare.

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Heading into the 2023 holiday season, you may be starting to make travel plans that involve air travel. Though airlines are showing improvements from post-pandemic complications, rates for issues such as delays, cancellations, lost baggage and getting unexpectedly bumped off a full flight haven’t improved notably and, in some cases, are higher than pre-pandemic 2019 levels. 

Before finalizing your trip, here are some things to consider to help everything go smoothly. 

What travel problems should I expect this year? 

A new U.S. PIRG analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Transportation assesses airline performance during the beginning of summer travel season — a litmus test for problems likely to occur during the holidays, when air travel peaks.

Overall, airports are experiencing record-high numbers of passengers and flights, with no increase in capacity to accommodate them. This is leading to high instances of delays and flight cancellations, which were improving during the first half of 2023 but rose again in June. 

Late arrivals could mean missed flights

The Department of Transportation considers flights on time if they arrive within 15 minutes of the scheduled time, meaning they weren’t delayed or canceled. In June, one in four flights arrived late. The average delay this summer was nearly an hour.

1 hourAverage flight delay in summer 2023.

Cancellations are showing more consistent improvements compared with 2022. In June they fell to 2.1%, better than a year ago. The cancellation rate for the first half of 2023, at 1.6%, was half of what it was in 2022 and better than in 2019. 

Overbooking may mean you get bumped from your flight

Passengers should understand there is a risk of being involuntarily bumped from an overbooked flight, even when they have a ticket. Airlines don’t want too many empty seats, so they overbook flights by calculating how many passengers typically don’t show up at the gate for a particular flight. But when the airlines miscalculate and too many passengers show up, airlines will ask for volunteers and may offer another flight as well as compensation for the inconvenience. When they don’t get enough volunteers, though, airlines have to bump people who didn’t volunteer. 

The good news is, airlines seem to be improving their post-pandemic estimations, and involuntary bumps are declining. For the first half of 2023, the bump rate was slightly lower than in 2022 and flat compared with 2019. But there are mandatory compensation levels for involuntary bumping, depending on how long it takes to get another flight.

What are the most reliable airlines right now? 

We expect airlines to get us where we need to go, with as few complications as possible. In 2023, which airlines are succeeding at delivering what we pay for? 

Which airlines are the best and worst for delayed flights 

The three best airlines in June 2023, which is a peak travel season and a good predictor of holiday travel: 

  1. Alaska Airlines Network – 79.4% on time flights
  2. Delta Air Lines Network – 77.8% on time flights
  3. Hawaiian Airlines – 77.4% on time flights.

The three worst for June were: 

  1. Frontier Airlines – 53.7% on time flights
  2. Spirit Airlines – 58.8% on time flights
  3. JetBlue Airways – 60.8% on time flights

Which airlines are the best and worst for cancellations

Cancellation data comes with an asterisk, because only flights canceled within seven days of departure  are considered canceled. Flights canceled within eight days of departure are considered “discontinued” and do not count against the airline. 

The three best airlines in June were: 

  1. Alaska – 0.3%  cancellation rate
  2. Allegiant – 0.6%    cancellation rate
  3. Southwest – 0.6%   cancellation rate

The three worst for June were: 

  1. United – 4.5%  cancellation rate    
  2. Frontier – 3.9%  cancellation rate    
  3. JetBlue – 3.5%  cancellation rate   

How do I plan ahead for air travel issues? 

While some problems may be out of your control, there are measures that can help make sure airline issues don’t upend your vacation. 

Booking your flight 

  1. Booking through your airline will help you access better customer service and faster rebooking if you end up needing to change flights. 
  2. Consider flying early in the morning when delays are usually at their lowest. Plus, if your morning flight is delayed or canceled, you have more options for other flights than you will later in the day.
  3. Avoid layovers, and if you can’t, give yourself a larger gap than you think you need to account for delay risk.  
  4. If you can, travel a day ahead of an important event like a cruise or a wedding to give a buffer before your event if your flight is canceled. 

What to know, and what to do if your flight is delayed or canceled

Historically, the most common reason a flight is delayed is because of bad weather. In 2022, however, the most common reasons for delays stemmed from airline issues or problems with the national aviation system, which includes air traffic control problems. 

If the disruption is the fault of the airline, you have legal rights you should know about: 

  1. Find a flight on another airline with available seats, and ask the first airline to transfer your ticket to the second airline.
  2. Some airlines will rebook you on another airline at no charge. Some will also pay for hotels, meals, etc, but you can’t count on the airline offering this to you unless you ask.
  3. Passengers who face a significant delay are entitled to a full refund should they choose not to travel. What defines a “significant” delay is  Unclear, but the DOT has proposed anything exceeding three hours.
  4. For all cancellations, every passenger is entitled to a full refund should they choose not to rebook.

How much should airlines compensate you if you’re involuntarily bumped?

Airlines must provide you with a list of your rights and compensate you according to how long your arrival will be delayed.

  • Less than 1 hour: No compensation
  • 1-2 hours (Domestic): 200% of your one-way fare up to $775
  • 1-4 hours (International): 200% of your one-way fare up to $775
  • Over 2 hours (Domestic): 400% of your one-way fare up to $1,550
  • Over 4 hours (International): 400% of your one-way fare up to $1,550

Bookmark the Department of Transportation’s passenger dashboard that shows the binding commitments from the 10 largest airlines on various issues, including cancellations and delays caused by the airline. 

Holding airlines to legal agreements

Your rights as a traveler are indisputable when it comes to refunds for cancellations or accommodations for significant delays. But airlines will often try to push customers into accepting vouchers, or they delay issuing refunds for several weeks, instead of within seven days as required if payment was by credit card. 

And the Department of Transportation doesn’t do enough to enforce these rules. PIRG is pushing to ensure that travelers have more protections when flights are canceled, and don’t lose money when the airline is at fault. You can add your voice by signing our petition to DOT today.