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5 tips to avoid air travel delays during the holidays

November 18, 2021

From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, air travel to popular locations such as warm and sunny Florida and Colorado’s ski country increases to the point of creating frustrating delays. The FAA Air Traffic Control System Command Center works to minimize delays, but AOPA encourages pilots to do their part as well.

AOPA Director of Airspace, Air Traffic, and Security Jim McClay worked at the FAA Air Traffic Control System Command Center for 13 years and shares insights pilots can use to minimize their delays.

“During the weekend leading into the holidays, we typically see heavy southbound traffic to Florida and the Caribbean, as well as into Colorado ski country, with the reverse happening as people fly home after the holidays,” McClay said. “Even with the FAA’s extensive planning, the bottom line is too many aircraft are trying to access the same airspace and airports at the same time. This is where advance planning and communication on pilots’ part can help alleviate some of the delays.”

McClay offers these five tips.

  • Set realistic expectations for yourself and your passengers. With a high volume of traffic and the potential for foul weather, delays will be inevitable. Add time and flexibility to your schedule, and don’t add stress by flying at the last minute to an important event.
  • Avoid flying popular routes during high-volume days and peak hours. Flights along the East Coast from the Northeast to Florida will be congested a few days in advance of the holidays, with the reverse happening a day or two after the holidays as people return home. Try to fly before or after those peak days. If you must travel on those days, plan to fly as early in the day as possible to beat the rush. (Learn more from the National Business Aviation Association’s FileSmart educational initiative.)
  • File your flight plan as early as possible. If you can file your flight plan the day before rather than the day of your flight, that will allow your flight plan to become part of the known demand that ATC plans for to help eliminate bottlenecks for the following day.
  • Call the FBO at your destination airport ahead of time. Ask about ramp space and find out if they are requiring reservations. Providing a heads-up will allow the FBO to feed information to ATC for planning purposes. And, if the FBO is full, you will have more time to plan for an alternate airport.
  • Fly VFR or IFR below 12,000 feet, if possible, to avoid some traffic management programs. If weather permits and you can fly VFR or if you can fly IFR below 12,000 feet, you will often be able to avoid participating in certain en route traffic management programs. You might, however, still encounter a ground stop or an expected departure clearance time when flying IFR if the delay is specific to your destination airport. To avoid this, research which airports are predicted to have the highest demand and select a nearby alternate that works for your plans. Departing VFR and picking up an IFR clearance in the air is not recommended—doing so during peak volume times could result in the FAA issuing you an extended hold.

“This is a very busy time of year, and everyone traveling is looking forward to visiting family and friends or going on vacation,” McClay said. “Doing your part can help keep you and your passengers safe as well as alleviate your delays—and your stress level.”

Alyssa J. Miller

Alyssa J. Cobb

AOPA Senior Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor

AOPA Senior Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor Alyssa J. Cobb began working at AOPA in 2004, is a flight instructor, and loves flying her Cessna 170B with her husband and son. Alyssa is also co-host of AOPA Live This Week.

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