Updated November 30, 2013

Study: Best Time-Saving Airports in the US

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Unless you enjoy watching planes take-off, you don't relish the thought of hanging around the airport. And, for business commuters who rely on air travel for work, flight delays can lead to the loss of billions of dollars in potential earnings. In a report compiled by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, passengers lost $12 billion worth of time due to flight delays.

While a certain amount of waiting is an unavoidable part of air travel, it can be reduced if you depart from one of the following time-saving airports.

To ensure you have the smoothest departure possible, we’ve evaluated which airports may be the best for reducing your time spent waiting around. We ranked the busiest U.S. airports on the following criteria: on-time departures, average departure delay, taxi-out times (when everyone has boarded a plane but it has not yet gone airborne), as well as each airport’s participation in the Transportation Security Administration’s expedited screening program.

Among those metrics, a passenger’s perception of the overall airport experience may be most affected by taxi-out times, regardless of how much time they already spent waiting inside the airport terminal. Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman found that people’s most recent experience (in this case, time spent circling around the tarmac) can have the greatest impact on their impression of the overall experience.

Because of this “recency bias,” even when travelers experienced longer than average wait times at the security checkpoint or during other pre-boarding procedures, a brief taxi-out time will make some of them remember their departure as relatively painless.

Study Methodology

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), over 400 million enplanements took place at the 50 busiest U.S. airports in 2011. Forecasts from the Federal Aviation Administration suggest that the number of enplanements will continue to hold steady through 2013.

Based on the average ranking of the following metrics, we’ve pared down our list to the top 10 airports with a history of the shortest wait times.

  • On-time departures: Flights are reported as “on-time” if they depart from the gate less than 15 minutes beyond the scheduled departure time.
  • Average departure delay: Average time, in minutes, spent at the gate, waiting to board.
  • Taxi-out time: This metric is not included in the on-time departures calculation; it’s measured as the time between when an airplane leaves the gate and when it folds up the wheels.
  • TSA Screening Participation: Measured by the number of airlines at the airport participating in TSA Pre, the agency’s expedited screening program (for more information on the program benefits, see Traveler Tips below).

Top 10 Time-Saving Airports

The Waiting Game
As to your next flight, just how long can you expect to wait before your plane’s wheels leave the ground? According to the BTS, the longest taxi-out times typically occur in the summer months. In rare cases, passengers sit on the tarmac for as long as two hours. Typically, however, the average wait time is about 12 minutes. Our top-ranked airport, Norman Y. Mineta San José International (SJC), reported an average taxi-out time of 10 minutes.

The following are the statistics for SJC and the rest of the top time-saving airports.

1. San José, CA (SJC)

  • Percentage of On-time Departures: 87.23%
  • Average Departure Delay: 6.8 minutes
  • Average Taxi-Out Time: 10.9 minutes
  • TSA Pre Airline Participation: 0

San Jose tops our list for its high marks in on-time departures, low departure delays, and lower than average taxi-out times. SJC also boasts more elbow room. It's less crowded than others on the list due to its relatively small number of passengers in 2011—just over three million. By comparison, the busiest airport in the U.S., Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta (ATL), handled 33 million enplanements.

2. Honolulu, HI (HNL: Honolulu International)

  • Percentage of On-time Departures: 90.68%
  • Average Departure Delay: 6.3 minutes
  • Average Taxi-Out Time: 13.5 minutes
  • TSA Pre Airline Participation: 5

Honolulu’s higher taxi-out times prevented it from taking the top spot on our survey, despite being ranked highest in on-time departures. However, its high ranking on this list is impressive considering it has nearly double the number of enplanements (5.6 million) to process than the top airport, SJC.

3. Fort Myers, FL (RSW: Southwest Florida International)

  • Percentage of On-time Departures: 87.6%
  • Average Departure Delay: 7.6 minutes
  • Average Taxi-Out Time: 12.3 minutes
  • TSA Pre Airline Participation: 0

Despite a 12% increase in the number of enplanements from 2001 to 2011, RSW ranks as one of the highest overall in on-time departures and average departure delays.

4. Sacramento, CA (SMF: Sacramento International)

  • Percentage of On-time Departures: 85.15%
  • Average Departure Delay: 8.7 minutes
  • Average Taxi-Out Time: 10.6 minutes
  • TSA Pre Airline Participation: 0

In the middle of the pack were SMF, SAT, and TPA, where passengers enjoyed higher than average on-time departures, average departure delays, and average taxi-out times.

5. San Antonio, TX (SAT: San Antonio International)

  • Percentage of On-time Departures: 85.72%
  • Average Departure Delay: 8.6 minutes
  • Average Taxi-Out Time: 11.9 minutes
  • TSA Pre Airline Participation: 0

6. Tampa, FL (TPA: Tampa International)

  • Percentage of On-time Departures: 85.62%
  • Average Departure Delay: 9 minutes
  • Average Taxi-Out Time: 11.9 minutes
  • TSA Pre Airline Participation: 1

7. Austin, TX (AUS: Austin-Bergstrom International)

  • Percentage of On-time Departures: 84.66%
  • Average Departure Delay: 8.9 minutes
  • Average Taxi-Out Time: 11.9 minutes
  • TSA Pre Airline Participation: 5

Austin’s airport only recently began offering the TSA’s expedited program to frequent fliers of all five eligible airlines (Alaska, American, Delta, United, and US Air). Participating in this time-saving initiative will likely make navigating through this top-performing airport even quicker.

8. Minneapolis, MN (MSP: Minneapolis-St. Paul International/World-Chamberlain)

  • Percentage of On-time Departures: 87.82%
  • Average Departure Delay: 7.3 minutes
  • Average Taxi-Out Time: 17.1 minutes
  • TSA Pre Airline Participation: 5

MSP is the airport on the list with the highest number of enplanements. Considering they processed just over 12 million passengers in 2011, its performance is particularly impressive. If it hadn’t been for its higher than average taxi-out time, it would have been in the top spot.

9. Seattle, WA (SEA: Seattle-Tacoma International)

  • Percentage of On-time Departures: 86.91%
  • Average Departure Delay: 7.9 minutes
  • Average Taxi-Out Time: 15 minutes
  • TSA Pre Airline Participation: 5

Similar to MSP, Sea-Tac is ranked high in total number of enplanements (over 11 million) indicating that this airport is well-equipped to handle many passengers with relative ease. It too suffered from a higher than average taxi-out time, and those delays kept SEA from breaking into the top three.

10. Salt Lake City, UT (SLC: Salt Lake International)

  • Percentage of On-time Departures: 89.83%
  • Average Departure Delay: 5.8 minutes
  • Average Taxi-Out Time: 17.5 minutes
  • TSA Pre Airline Participation: 2

In 2012, SLC boasted the second highest percentage of on-time departures and the lowest average departure delay, but it was clobbered by its higher than average taxi-out time. Given the recency bias, passengers would have forgotten about the relatively smooth boarding process and on-time departure the longer they waited on the tarmac. Improvements in this area could catapult SLC to the top spot in the future.

Traveler Tips

While time spent waiting on the tarmac and sitting through a delay because of weather or equipment failure is not something you can control, there are steps you can take to help reduce your overall wait time … even before leaving home.

  • Online resources: Most airlines allow passengers to check in to their flight from home or via mobile apps; they even offer the ability to select seats and get boarding passes.

  • Airport apps: Minneapolis-St. Paul International — ranked 8th on our list — allows passengers to check real-time parking availability via its SurePark portal and its mobile app.

  • TSA expedited screening: Depending on the availability of this program at your departure airport, passengers enrolled in certain frequent flier programs may take advantage of shorter lines at security checkpoints. Participants of the program can get in screening lanes where they won’t have to remove their shoes, coats, or belts. Other benefits include leaving their laptops and liquids in their carry-on bags, without having to pull them out to put them on the screening belt. Learn more about this Department of Homeland Security initiative at TSA Pre. If you aren’t yet enrolled, you can use the TSA app to view real-time screening delays.

  • Airport lounges: If you find yourself grounded, you can wait in relative comfort and enjoy free drinks, snacks, and internet access. Check with your credit card company or airline for perks including free or reduced membership fees at one the many VIP airport lounges.

This study examines high-level metrics which contribute to the overall efficiency of the busiest airports. These efficiencies are attained in spite of other factors not under the express control of airport administration, including individual airline operations that can affect passenger wait times (e.g., ticketing, baggage handling, etc.). In addition, each passenger’s expected wait-times can be impacted by a variety of factors. For instance, passengers on the same flight at the same airport might experience different wait times depending on different levels of benefits they receive from airline frequent flier programs.

Currently, just 40 percent of the airports on the list participate in the TSA’s expedited screening initiative, but many have announced their plans to join. JetBlue’s TrueBlue frequent fliers may enroll beginning in late 2013. This could ease security delays at their regional hubs, including SJC.

So, if your home airport doesn't appear on our list, don’t despair. Chances are, they’re already working on ways to make your future air travel experience more enjoyable. Their improvement projects may even qualify for funding via federal grants offered through the Airport Improvement Program (AIP). For those airports working to incorporate time-saving features, their overall rankings will likely change throughout 2013 and beyond.


Annie K is a consumer behavior analyst at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and reviews website. Write to Annie K at annie@creditdonkey.com. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for our latest posts.

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