But nothing is worse than a lengthy delay where passengers are either sitting on a tarmac waiting for 20 other planes to takeoff, or circling and circling until a landing slot opens up. According to the Department of Transportation, (DOT), flight delays so far this year are at their lowest point since 2003 -- 18.7 percent of all flights arrived at the gate 15 minutes or later. But some airports are still routinely plagued by late flights.
Flying in or out of New York is probably going to mean some delays. But what about San Francisco, Miami, Chicago or Boston? Unfortunately, those airport don't fare much better.
"There's no surprise," said Ray Neidl, an airline analyst with the Maxim Group. "You're talking about the biggest cities, the most-congested airspace."
Airports with the fewest delays during the first eight months of the year were Seattle, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Portland, Ore. and Las Vegas. Each of those cities have relatively good weather, plenty of open airspace for flights to maneuver, and large modern runways.
"A lot of it is airspace," Neidl notes.
When it comes to delays, New York's three airports are perpetually near the bottom of the rankings, although all three showed improvement over last year. Each of the airports fights each other for landing and take-off space, and flights headed for their destination airport often have to circle miles out of their way to avoid planes approaching the other airports.
Another problem with New York and some other airports: the airlines schedule more flights to take off at the same time, than the facilities can possibly accommodate.
"They probably have 20 flights scheduled at the same time, especially in the afternoon," notes John DiScala, a blogger known as Johnny Jet, who flies about 150,000 miles a year.
Nationwide, there are some signs of improvement. Overall, the DOT says 18.7 percent of flights arrived late during the first eight months of this year, compared to 19.5 percent last year and 23.3 percent the year before.
George Hobica, president of airfarewatchdog.com, said that improvement may be due to the fact that many airlines are still operating on reduced schedules because of the recession. That has helped clear up congestion.
There might be another reason. The government bases its on-time performance on the airlines' schedules. So an improvement in delays could be as simple as an airline adding 20 minutes to the flying time between say Houston and Des Moines, even though those cities are just as far apart as they were last year.
"You may be seeing some changes here because of schedule padding," Neidl said.
So what about the worst airport, San Francisco, where the DOT says only 71.5 percent of flights arrived at the gate on time? Well, the airport is sandwiched against the bay, can't add more runways and is often covered in a heavy fog.
"Unfortunately some airports cannot add runways so they are going to have to wait until the next generation of air traffic control," Hobica said.
New air traffic control systems will eventually allow the Federal Aviation Administration to maneuver planes quicker, and with more precision, and therefore space them closer together.
In other places, such as New York, Hobica believes the government is eventually going to need to step in and limit flight slots.
"The airports were built for far fewer flights than actually use them," he said.
Small commuter jets holding 50 passengers take just as much time to take off and land as a jumbo jet with 300 passengers. The airlines might eventually be forced to move away from those cheaper, regional jets.
Avoiding Flight Delays
So what can travelers do?
"Get around it by leaving in the morning," DiScala advises. "When I transfer at hubs, I tend to stay away from the really busy hubs or the ones that are prone to bad weather."
Daniel Gellert, CEO of GateGuru, said that fliers should consider airport choices, when available, especially given rising airfares.
"While a ticket that is $20 cheaper from one airport may seem like a good deal, if that airport rates on the bottom of airport statistics -- both in terms of departure and arrival, as well as amenities -- that should and probably will start to play a factor in people's decisions," Gellert said.
With that in mind, here is the list of the country's major airports ranked from the best on-time arrivals to the worst:
Seattle (SEA): 86.5 percent
Phoenix (PHX): 86.3 percent
Salt Lake City (SLC): 85 percent
Portland, Ore. (PDX): 85 percent
Las Vegas (LAS): 83.4 percent
San Diego, Calif. (SAN): 83.1 percent
Denver (DEN): 82.9 percent
Los Angeles, Calif. (LAX): 82.5 percent
Charlotte, N.C. (CLT): 82 percent
Chicago's Midway (MDW): 80.6 percent
Houston (IAH): 80.2 percent
Tampa, Fla. (TPA): 80 percent
The Worst Airports
Orlando, Fla. (MCO): 79.9 percent
Dallas/Ft. Worth (DFW): 79.8 percent
Washington's Dulles (IAD): 79.3 percent
Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn. (MSP): 78.8 percent
Baltimore, Md. (BWI): 78.2 percent
Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (FLL): 77.8 percent
Atlanta, Ga. (ATL): 77.2 percent
Washington's National (DCA): 77.2 percent
Philadelphia (PHL): 76.8 percent
Detroit (DTW): 76.6 percent
Boston (BOS): 76.2 percent
Chicago's O'Hare (ORD): 76 percent
Miami (MIA): 75.4 percent
New York's John F. Kennedy (JFK): 74.4 percent
New York's LaGuardia (LGA): 73.7 percent
Newark, N.J. (EWR): 71.9 percent
San Francisco (SFO): 71.5 percent