Once upon a time, jetting out of Denver International Airport on the first flight of the day was a breeze — but now, travelers who get up early may face strong headwinds.
Sunday, September 18, offered a prime example. The date wasn't part of a holiday weekend, yet by 5:30 a.m., traffic on Peña Boulevard, the roadway leading to DIA, was stop-and-go for miles simply because of heavy volume. And inside the terminal, the security line was so long that it looped into the baggage area. The queue moved steadily, but progress was slow, with one passenger reporting grumbling and complaints from many frustrated fellow travelers as their takeoff times grew closer. Between 45 minutes and an hour passed before she was given the all-clear, and she made it to her gate shortly before boarding — happy to have beaten the deadline but still dizzied by the clusterfuck of it all.
What's going on? The usual, insists DIA spokesperson Alex Renteria. "Since a large number of flights leave in the morning, we see higher passenger volumes at that time," she says. "This has been the trend for many years, so nothing has changed in that regard."
Maybe not — but the perception that flying is no longer as reliable as it once was is leading to intermittent early-morning crushes at airports across the country, including DIA.
On July 18, according to tracking data from the FlightAware service, more than 25,000 global flights were delayed and approximately 3,100 were canceled — and DIA hasn't been immune from such phenomena. Federal stats reveal that in 2022 through June, the most recent month for which numbers are available, just 76.48 percent of arriving flights were classified as having been on time, and the 3.05 percent of flights canceled so far this year — 3,947 that never arrived — was higher than any year in the last ten, other than 2020, when the pandemic was at its peak. Meanwhile, on-time departures for DIA in the first half of 2022 landed at 67.89 percent, easily the worst performance since 2013, and departure delays hit 37,708, far outdistancing the 26,159 arriving flights that were late. Departing-flight cancellations reached 2.92 percent, the poorest mark in a decade for any year other than 2020; so far in 2022, 3,778 flights that were supposed to leave Denver's airport didn't.
When problems like these continued to flare up throughout the summer, passengers began looking for ways to lower the risk that they'd spend part of their trip stranded — and the tactic of flying early is well supported by data. According to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the most predictable take-off times are between 6 and 7 a.m., and a study by the FiveThirtyEight website found that each hour after that could add extra delays, topping out at an average of twenty minutes by 6 p.m. Bloomberg recently shared figures from the AirHelp service confirming that that largest number of cancellations tend to occur from 4 to 10 p.m.
Carriers have noticed these trends, too. "In general, there are more flights in the morning than in the afternoon and evening, and this is based on the airlines’ schedules," notes Renteria. "Currently, we are seeing a heavier bank of flights around 9 a.m., but that could change based on airline flight schedules."
The Transportation Service Administration and DIA "adjust staffing levels based on airline schedules and expected passenger volumes," mornings included. And given the recent swarms, getting to the airport early is more important than ever. Renteria stresses that "no matter the time of day, we encourage passengers to be inside the airport at least two hours before their boarding time, not their departure time. Passengers can check live TSA wait times at www.flydenver.com to help determine the best checkpoint to go through."
She adds that "at this time, we are not seeing significant impacts to parking. However, passengers can also see live parking availability on our website. When one of the economy lots fills, which does not happen often, there are still many on-site parking options, including the shuttle lots at $8 a day."
In other words, plan ahead — because the days of early risers getting a jump on the crowds is over.