Traveling during the holidays amounts to contending with the perfect storm. Flights are full, literally to overflowing. And you don't need a weatherman to tell you that snowstorms threaten to wreak havoc on the tightly integrated flight system.

A single day of cancelled flights at Chicago, for instance, can reverberate throughout the entire country, causing days of cascading cancellations at other airports while airlines scramble to reposition snowbound planes and rebook grumpy customers.

According to a Forbes analysis of DOT flight data, 33 percent of last year's holiday-period (December 20 - January 6) were late. That's a lot of travelers arriving late, or not at all, for Christmas dinner.

So, in addition to the usual purchase considerations--price, flight duration, loyalty points, and so on--there's a strong argument to be made for including on-time performance when choosing an airline for holiday flights.

Helpfully, Forbes averaged the DOT on-time stats for the past three holiday periods, and ranked the airlines' performance accordingly, as follows:

  1. Hawaiian - 91.3%
  2. Alaska - 84.6%
  3. Delta - 81.3%
  4. US Airways - 80.3%
  5. Virgin America - 80.0%
  6. Southwest - 67.0%
  7. Envoy (American Eagle) - 66.3%
  8. ExpressJet - 65.0%
  9. JetBlue - 64.0%
  10. Frontier - 60.0%

Of course, an airline's operational efficiency reflects more than just its commitment to stay on schedule. Hawaiian is a perennial top-performer largely because it mostly flies routes that enjoy moderate weather year-round. And Denver-based Frontier has Denver's winter weather to deal with.

Still, schedule and price being more or less equal, your chances of arriving in time for Christmas dinner look considerably better on Delta than on JetBlue.

Reader Reality Check When choosing an airline, do you consider on-time performance?

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This article was originally published on SmarterTravel and under the title The One Thing You Need to Know About Holiday Flights.

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