On Thursday morning, I took my first 6 a.m. flight in nearly two years.
Historically, I’ve avoided 6 a.m. flights like the plague. Though they may be cheaper and more reliable, I’ve never voluntarily chosen this early-morning departure bank.
In fact, when I have morning work meetings that require travel, I’ll almost always fly in the night before. This way, I’ll be well rested and avoid any possible last-minute delays or cancellations.
Yet this week, I broke from my tradition (albeit somewhat begrudgingly).
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Well, I’ve been eager to fly United Airlines’ revamped Airbus A319, which features an all-new first-class seat and an overhauled economy cabin with seatback TVs for every passenger.
Because I was interested in a specific plane, I didn’t really have much of a choice in flight times. When the jet was scheduled to operate a 6 a.m. flight from New York, I decided to bite the bullet.
“How bad could it be?” I asked myself. Well, after doing a daytrip that started with a 6 a.m. flight, I’m actually reminded why it’s worth considering these flights.
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It’s no secret that 6 a.m. flights only work for a specific type of traveler.
Families would likely have a hard time traveling with kids at 6 a.m., and only those who don’t mind a 4 a.m. (or earlier) alarm can make these early-morning flights work.
Airline revenue managers know this too, and that’s typically why the first flight of the morning is the cheapest one. There’s much less demand to fly at 6 a.m. than there is at, say, 9 a.m., and that reality is often reflected in the fares charged for a given route.
If you’re after the cheapest flight of the day, odds are that it’ll be the one that leaves at 6 a.m.
In fact, I booked my flight just a few hours before departure. Most of the other one-way walk-up fares from New York to Houston were $500 or more.
But the 6 a.m. frequency? Just $329 — a relative bargain compared to the others.
Better upgrade odds
These days, scoring a complimentary elite upgrade is like winning Powerball. It just never happens.
With record loads and sky-high demand, the first-class cabin is often booked up with paying passengers weeks in advance. The one or two remaining seats usually go to top-tier elite members on super-expensive walk-up fares.
That’s not necessarily the case on 6 a.m. flights. Like most of the flying public, elite travelers typically prefer later flights, which means shorter upgrade lists and a better shot at clearing an upgrade.
Personally, I haven’t scored a single complimentary upgrade with United this year. (I’ve had better success when applying PlusPoints, an upgrade currency given to top-tier elite members.)
Yet that changed Thursday when I had no trouble clearing my first complimentary United upgrade of 2023. The upgrade list had only 11 people on it — compared to a whopping 44 on the 10:10 a.m. flight.
Also, only half of the first-class cabin was booked before departure, so even mid-tier Premier Gold members got upgraded.
Less traffic, fewer lines
As a frequent traveler living in New York City, I’ve learned to avoid flying during certain times of the day.
Land at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) at 5 p.m.? Expect a nearly two-hour trek into Manhattan. While public transit is always an option, perhaps the easiest and most seamless way to the airport is a car at 4 a.m.
There’s almost never any traffic, and when you arrive at the airport, it’s not nearly as crowded as it’d be later in the day when there are multiple flight banks (with possible rolling delays) stacked on top of each other.
RON to the rescue
Many travel pundits recommend flying first thing in the morning to minimize your exposure to delays and cancellations.
This is sage advice, and it largely relies on two factors. The first is that the plane assigned to the 6 a.m. flight is usually an RON, or “remain overnight” (especially at outstations), that’s given special attention.
That means that the plane will have arrived the night before. This gives the maintenance team time to fix any possible issues and buys you more of a buffer if there were rolling delays during the previous day.
Just as importantly, airlines realize the value of starting their operation with on-time flights. Since planes fly multiple frequencies a day, beginning the day on schedule will help create a positive domino effect across the network.
That’s why my flight on Thursday was designated a “star” flight by United — one that’s super important to depart on time. United likely would’ve delayed or canceled a late-night flight in order to make sure the plane was ready for the 6 a.m. flight.
The second factor is that the weather systems that typically snarl air traffic don’t usually materialize until later in the day.
Summer thunderstorms are a big obstacle to on-time departures, but — since they occur much more frequent during afternoon and evening hours — you can often avoid them entirely by flying in the morning. The earlier, the better.
Also, since early-morning flights aren’t as popular, there are fewer of them. This means the national airspace isn’t as congested as it usually is later in the day, minimizing the risk of air-traffic-related delays.
In my case, traveling in the morning was the only way I could pull off a same-day trip. Houston frequently experiences afternoon thunderstorms, and with a good chance of storms Thursday afternoon, I’m thrilled I was back home in New York before I even had any exposure to the brewing storms.
But, 2 nights of lost sleep
Now, all of these benefits come with a big downside — you’ll lose some sleep.
Unless you’re a night owl or work a nontraditional schedule, 6 a.m. flights will undoubtedly cut your sleep short.
And for me, I find that it kills two nights — both the night before the flight and the one after it.
I have trouble falling asleep anytime before 10 p.m. So, setting an alarm around 4 a.m. means I’m getting much less sleep. Also, I don’t sleep as deeply knowing that I set such an early alarm.
Then, once the trip is over, I’m often extremely tired by midafternoon, which typically kills any dinner or evening plans that I have.
So, is the trade-off worth it?
Well, now more than ever, I’m starting to think more seriously about taking 6 a.m. flights. Admittedly, my most recent experience was to chase a specific plane. However, I’m getting hooked on the idea of avoiding the bulk of the summer travel crush.
Airports and airplanes are busier than ever, and fares are through the roof. Weather issues keep popping up across the country, and many travelers are exhausted and frustrated by the aviation industry these days.
Perhaps the best way to avoid all the mess is by taking 6 a.m. flights. It doesn’t work for everyone, but at least it’ll increase the odds of arriving at your destination on time and on budget.