Thanksgiving Travel Insights You Didn’t Know You Needed

The holiday hustle and bustle is here — and airports are no exception.

According to AAA, 2016 will be the busiest Thanksgiving holiday travel season since 2007, with an anticipated 3.6 million Americans taking to the skies to reach their destinations. But with the excitement comes some concern: as many of us know, there’s nothing worse than arriving at the airport, only to find your flight delayed or cancelled. (Personally, I’d do just about anything to get to my aunt’s turkey and homemade applesauce.)

Detail from “Taming Thanksgiving Travel” © Freebird 2016

Luckily, this season, travelers can be better prepared for the unexpected — by leveraging data to stay in-the-know and in control.

Spoiler alert: it’s about much more than avoiding “busy travel days” at the airport — the trick is knowing what to look for.

At Freebird, we use predictive analytics to determine the risk of a flight cancellation, significant delay, or missed connection by capturing and analyzing terabytes upon terabytes of real-time (and historical) data related to weather, flights, airlines and airports. We connect the dots between these disparate sources of data so that travelers don’t need to manually check them in real-time, and generate two key outputs to help our travelers fly smarter: (1) a risk assessment for each individual flight, and (2) insights into larger trends that others don’t see.

So what do we know about Thanksgiving travel?

Using a combination of data sources, including the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, we analyzed 12 years’ worth of data (2004–2015) for the Thanksgiving travel season (the Friday prior to Thanksgiving, through the Monday after the holiday). Going beyond superficial observations like “avoid busy travel days,” here’s what you need to know:

1. Every year during the Thanksgiving travel season:

  • Nearly 255,000 travelers experience a flight cancellation,
  • Flight delays cause more than 5 million hours in lost time for travelers, and
  • Nearly 1 in every 8 flights experience at least a 30-minute delay.

2. There are clear patterns when it comes to the riskiest days for flight delays or cancellations:

When planning travel, most people are wary of “the busiest travel days” — and understandably so, given security lines and crowds. Wednesday is the busiest travel day before Thanksgiving, but not necessarily the most risky. The worst days for travel disruptions are:

  • Monday is the most likely day for a flight to be cancelled — 17% of all cancellations during the Thanksgiving travel season happen on the Monday of Thanksgiving week.
  • Wednesday is the most likely day for a flight to be significantly delayed — 17% of all delays lasting 4+ hours happen on Wednesday.
  • Across all travel days during this period, flights departing between 6 and 7 a.m. are the most frequently cancelled; the second-most-likely hour for flight cancellations is between 4 and 5 p.m.

The takeaway here is that airlines are far less likely to cancel a flight entirely on the day before Thanksgiving (Wednesday) — their goal is to get people home for the holiday! — but that may make them more likely to delay it, if there is an issue. Another important tip is don’t take an early morning flight if you’re worried about flight cancellations.

3. Be a smarter weather-watcher:

While it’s true that no one can control or avoid sudden bouts of bad weather (last year, the first major snowfall of 2015 blasted the Midwest on the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving, resulting in 1,173 cancelled flights out of Chicago and other airports across the region), our predictive analytics identified two interesting and helpful weather-related trends. People often fret about bad weather affecting landing conditions at their destination airports, but in fact:

  • Weather at the departure airport has a greater impact on flight delays and cancellations than weather at the arrival airport, and
  • Cross-country flights with bad weather at the departure airport are at highest risk for delay or cancellation.

With that in mind, if you’re flying out of Syracuse, NY, Denver, CO, or Minneapolis, MN this week (Thanksgiving 2016) — cities whose forecasts call for snow and/or ice — be prepared for possible delays, especially if you are headed for a long-distance destination.

Whatever your plans, we wish you safe and easy travels this Thanksgiving and holiday season! And no matter what happens while you’re traveling, we hope the food, family and friends at the other end of your journey make it all worthwhile. If you need to find me, I’ll be helping myself to a second serving of my aunt’s homemade applesauce.

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