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Travelers walk through Terminal 1 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago

Travelers walk through Terminal 1 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.

Nam Y. Huh

One in four inbound flights to Chicago were delayed this summer. But we’ve had it worse.

Killing time at Chicago airports often means dining at Publican Tavern, sipping a latte from Big Shoulders Coffee or drinking a beer at Goose Island Beer Company. But if flight delays and cancellations had you spending more time there than normal this summer, take solace in the fact that you were not alone.

Nearly a quarter of all flights — about 28,000 in total — arriving at Midway International Airport and O’Hare International Airport were delayed between May and July, according to data from FlightAware, an aviation intelligence company.

More than 2,000 flights were canceled.

Summer travel was especially fraught at Midway: In June, two out of every five flights were delayed.

Weather is the primary driver of such travel woes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A preliminary dataset shows 85% of delay minutes in Chicago are attributable to weather. Staffing accounts for about 7% of delay minutes in Chicago, an FAA spokesperson said.

Together, bad weather and staff shortages can have cascading effects. Mallory Cheng experienced this double-whammy in July when her 6:30 a.m. Southwest flight from Midway to Oakland International Airport was delayed by almost 10 hours.

“The first major delay was due to thunderstorms and high wind,” Cheng said. She said she waited about three hours to board the plane before she said the pilots announced a “weight issue.”

Then one of the pilots informed passengers that they were going to time out while flying, she said, referring to federal regulations that limit a crew’s on-duty and flight time. The second pilot, she added, had also timed out.

Cheng said she remained on the tarmac for an additional hour before deplaning. By the time the plane finally departed with a new pilot and co-pilot, she said, it was 9 hours and 40 minutes after her scheduled departure time.

But even if air travel felt uncommonly strained this summer, the data suggest Chicagoans have had it worse.

In 2020, shortly after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, the percent of flights that were delayed dropped. Cancellations, on the other hand, skyrocketed.

But in the summer of 2021, arrival delays at Midway exceeded 2019 pre-pandemic levels. The percent of delays at O’Hare increased but not to the same extent.

The increase in delays and cancellations this summer isn’t unique to Chicago. Newark’s airport saw similar levels of delays as Midway in May at 37%. Delays in Atlanta, Miami, Orlando and New York were higher in June of this year than they were in 2019.

Across the country, about 37% of delayed minutes from January to May this year were attributable to a late aircraft, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Your best bet for an on-time departure is to fly early in the morning or late at night, according to the most recent air travel report from the Department of Transportation.

In May, the worst window for outbound O’Hare flights was 4:00 to 4:59 p.m., with a 71% on-time departure rate. At Midway, passengers had the least luck between 9:00 p.m. and 10:59 p.m.; less than one in three outbound flights left on schedule.

Passengers also face rising airline fares, which increased by 28% from July 2021 to July 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And paying more for a flight that doesn’t arrive on time or is unexpectedly canceled can feel like salt in a wound.

Charmaine Runes is WBEZ’s data/visuals reporter. Follow her @maerunes


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