Flying to D.C.? Here’s your cheat sheet

Exclusive analysis of Chicago to Washington flight times



Within sight of the air traffic control tower, cars circle at O’Hare International Airport as they wait to pick up arriving passengers. PHOTO CREDIT: LAURA FINCH

With the shutdown over, monuments re-opening, and business resuming, many Chicagoans will pack up to head to Washington, D.C. in the coming weeks for business and pleasure.

They may want to consider the following findings of a recent analysis of flight delays between O’Hare International Airport and Reagan National Airport. Flights during the month of January 2013 were analyzed.

Chicagoans should consider flying into Washington on a Sunday or Monday. Both days had average arrival delays of only nine minutes, compared with the worst culprit: Thursday.

On that day, flights routinely arrived at Reagan 20 minutes late, even though the frequency of flights was not unusual (133 total flights were available on Thursdays over the course of the month, compared with 74 on Fridays and 165 on Wednesdays).

In fact, after the early morning on Thursdays, every two-hour block of time had an average arrival delay between 18 and 36 minutes.

No matter the day, mid-morning appears to be the worst time of day to depart.

Delays for these flights ran 21 minutes on average — compared with only six minutes for late morning flights and just two minutes for “early bird” flights leaving Chicago before 8:00 a.m.

Only 110 mid-morning flights were available during the month, compared with 159 choices for early birds.

Afternoon, evening and late night flight delays also supported the theory that as the day goes on, airline schedules become progressively backed up. These average delays ranged from 10 minutes to 17 minutes.

Travelers may also be tempted to try Dulles Airport, located 30 miles west of the U.S. Capitol.

Flight times from O’Hare to Dulles showed a similar pattern over the course of the workday. Flights to Dulles started the day only two minutes behind schedule and ended 20 minutes behind schedule.

However, customers should also bear in mind that Dulles lacks the proximity to Pentagon City hotels that Reagan has. In addition, until the Silver Line to Dulles is finished next year, Reagan is the only D.C. airport with Metro access. (A 17 minute ride brings passengers to the foot of Capitol Hill.)

Return flights from Reagan to O’Hare are best scheduled on a Saturday or Sunday, when flights ran eight minutes behind on average. The worst offenders: flying on Tuesdays and Thursdays set back January travelers by 19 minutes and 17 minutes, respectively.

Once again, early morning (when airline schedules haven’t yet had a chance to get backed up) is the best time to depart Washington. Early morning trips from Reagan to O’Hare ran just six minutes behind throughout the month. Mid-morning flight delays were only seven minutes (with even shorter averages out of Dulles).

Andrea Pivarunas is an Illinois native, current D.C. resident, and former scheduler for a Chicago-area member of Congress. In that role, she booked weekly flights for both the member and the member’s Chief of Staff.

“We generally found that each day’s earlier flights (6:00 a.m., 7:00 a.m., etc.,) tended to be the most reliable in either direction,” Pivarunas said.

“The later in the day, the more likely we were to experience delays.”

In general, Washington-to-Chicago trips showed slightly more overall delay time over the course of the month analyzed than did trips in the opposite direction.

These flights were delayed by a cumulative total of 5,741 minutes, whereas Chicago-to-Washington flights were delayed by a total of 5,604 minutes.

However, atypical events also took place in the nation’s capital that month.

A new congress was sworn in and a presidential inauguration was attended by one million people, by some estimates. Additionally, President Obama’s hometown is Chicago.

However, it would appear that individual flights from Reagan back to O’Hare on the afternoon of the inauguration and the next day weren’t terribly delayed.

Overall, the delay average was only nine minutes, although it peaked at 20 minutes late in the day on January 21 and 24 minutes on the evening on January 22.

Those who make the trip frequently, especially government travelers, come to accept the way that events in the capital affect the ebb and flow of travel.

Elaine Wilson also formerly worked as a scheduler for a member of Congress from northern Illinois. She estimates that she booked close to a hundred flights while holding that job.

“[We] were generally quite pleased with the service between DCA [Reagan] and ORD [O’Hare],” Wilson said. “Rarely were flights delayed more than 20-30 minutes.”

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