It’s a common story in the U.S. every year—Americans pour out of their homes and join friends and family all over the country (and world) during the two-month holiday season.  And while cheer is never guaranteed around the Thanksgiving or winter holiday table, one element is seemingly always guaranteed: waiting.

Whether on planes, trains, or automobiles, we’re all are stuck with the stresses our common travel plans place on another.

Flying is its own unique brand of ‘frustrating’ because of the limited or nonexistent alternatives.  While drivers often have the choice of multiple routes to reach their destination, and of course have the luxury to leave whenever they want, flyers can feel imprisoned by the specific departure times and limited routes.  What are you going to do if your flight from DC to LA is delayed, rent a car?

So, now that we’re a few months out from the most recent holiday season, how did the country do?  Did waits get better or worse? 

As the chart above shows, I’m happy to report that waits got much better within the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.  When comparing 2009 to 2008 alone, on-time performance jumped 5.3 percentage points in November and 6.6 percentage points in December.  The increases were even bigger if you extend the comparison to two years.

Of course, a huge reason for this was the drop in flights due to the Great Recession.  It’s much easier for flights to take-off and land on time when there’s less traffic to deal with.  In this way, our nation’s tarmacs aren’t unlike the interstate system.

But while on-time performance certainly improved, how did things look on the ground at our country’s biggest aviation centers, the 26 metropolitan hubs?  As Rob Puentes and I found back in October, these 26 metropolitan areas captured nearly three-quarters of all domestic travelers for a recent 12-month period.

The table at the bottom of this post shows all 26 hubs for 2009--and the overall picture is quite blurry.  First, November is clearly a better month to travel than December amongst all of the metropolitan areas.  Certainly, a big reason is the worse weather in December (e.g., the East Coast blizzard this past year) and the extended holiday season for students and workers.

Second, the improved national performance oversells how poor performance still is in certain metropolitan areas.  New York still only landed two-thirds of its December flights on-time, Dallas had trouble getting its flights off the ground on time in November and December, and even the usually top-performing Salt Lake City had troubles in December.  When problems arise at these metropolitan hubs, which serve as both final destinations and major transfer points, they create significant repercussions throughout the national system. 

These holiday numbers are another reminder to focusing our performance improvements on these 26 places.  It’s where the country will get the best bang for our public dollar.  It will also make sure when the economy maintains improvement and travel begins its rebound we’ll be better positioned to handle the holiday rush.