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Expert Advice for Minimizing Flight Delays

After one of the worst summers for air travel in years, what can you do to make your next flight more enjoyable?

Yes, it was the worst summer for air travel in years. Delays are rampant, and every few weeks we get a new report of some tin can full of poor schlubs stuck in an airplane for eight hours, reduced to nibbling on the seat-back security warning cards for sustenance.

Watching over all of this misery are the overworked, overstressed air traffic controllers, the folks responsible for making sure your plane doesn't hit the one in front of it. Following air traffic day after day, they learn when planes are taking off and when they aren't -- and now they're sharing those tips with you.

At the website, members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association have collected tips on flying into and out of 29 of the nation's top airports, along with the busiest times to fly and a rolling chronicle of each day's delay-related miseries.

We asked NATCA spokesman Doug Church what airlines could do, short of fixing the weather, to reduce delays. He said the answer is simple: airlines are putting more planes in the air than the airports can handle. Until we have fewer flights or more runways, terminals and controllers, delays will continue for the foreseeable future. Church says,

"For example, the airlines schedule 53 departures every weekday morning from 8-9 a.m. at JFK but the airport can only handle 45 on a good weather day. That means, every day, there are at least eight flights that are guaranteed to take off late in that hour. ... By 4 p.m., controllers have a complete mess on their hands."

Jump over to their site for the full details on your hometown airport. But here are some of their top tips.

For many cities, fly as early as you can. Please. Hey, you know how those 6:30am flights are usually cheaper than others? They're more often on time, too. Controllers in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Houston, New York, LA, Las Vegas, Memphis, Orlando, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. all recommend taking early morning flights -- and avoiding afternoon flights if at all possible.

Hard numbers back the controllers up. If you look at the always-enlightening Air Traffic Consumer Report from the federal government you find that on-time performance at most airports declines throughout the day, often perking up after 11pm.

For example, at Newark Airport, your chances of getting out on time if you flew between 7-11am this June were pretty decent, varying from 77 to 89 per cent. But if you scheduled your takeoff between 5-9pm, you had less than a 30% chance of taking off on time.

There are three exceptions to this rule: Dallas, Atlanta, and Tampa. In those three cities, according to the controllers, flying around noon will reduce delays.

Check for alternate security lines. At many airports, some security lines are much longer than others, but they all lead to the same place. If you get to a security line and it seems very long, ask if another line leads to the same location. For instance, in Seattle and Denver, you can use the "wrong" concourse's security entrance and then backtrack once you're past security.

Playing the New York and Chicago airports. New York and Chicago are popular destinations that are often very congested. In Chicago, Midway airport is better for delays than O'Hare, according to controllers. In New York, other than flying early in the day, controllers at LaGuardia suggest weekend travelers look at that airport between 11am Saturdays and 4pm Sundays.

Oddities. There's stuff in here that only air traffic controllers would know. For instance: late at night, FedEx takes over much of the Indianapolis airport, so flights into Indy after about 11pm are often delayed. Don't fly from Charlotte to the Caribbean at 11am on a Saturday, and if you're flying international out of LAX, try to do it after 11pm.

Do you have tips for other travelers who don't want to get stuck on a delayed flight? Share your experiences with other readers on our Air Travel Message Boards.