Why Don’t U.S. Airports Operate 24/7?

by SharonKurheg

Ever wonder why U.S. airports don’t operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?

Well, technically, they DO. With few exceptions, airports don’t 100% close when the last plane of the night takes off or lands. I mean, there are always people there for emergencies, like air traffic controllers, security, law enforcement, etc. Staff is there to clean and do maintenance as needed. If planes need work done, overnights are the best time to do them because the planes generally aren’t needed. And, of course, there are oftentimes passengers who are stranded because they missed their flight, or it was canceled and they have to wait until the next morning to fly (fortunately, there are sometimes options for them to be able to sleep at the airport).

But WHY are there so few passenger flights?

Turns out there are two big reasons:

Sound ordinances

We lived in the flight path of JFK until I was almost 10 years old. Y’all, planes are LOUD. So some cities have ordinances in place so planes can’t fly over them between the hours of X and Y.

Lack of demand


If people had the option of a flight that departed at 3am, how many would actually take it? Oh sure, some might, because it works with their schedule, or because it was dirt cheap. But in this day and age where airlines want to fill every single seat as often as possible, chances are good that a 3am plane would rarely, if ever fill up.

And you have to keep everyone else in mind, too. All the places and people in airports that/who are operational during the day. Ticketing people. TSA workers. Bag handlers. Enough cleaning people to handle the load of passengers. Parking garage workers. All the ways out of an airport that you may need (rental cars, shuttles, trains, taxis, and ride-sharing services, etc.). They’d all have to have a whole crew for overnight hours and again, that probably wouldn’t make much financial sense, IF you could get all those people in the first place.

But plane stuff is still happening!

Cargo planes

Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 10.46.27 PM

If they’re not in an area that worries about noise, cargo planes will oftentimes do their pick-ups and deliveries at nighttime. The same goes for USPS, UPS, FedEx, Amazon, etc. That way the main terminal doesn’t have to be open but the non-passenger flights can do their stuff at night, leaving more runway time and space for the passenger planes during the day.

Red eyes

Just because a plane isn’t taking off at 3 am doesn’t mean it’s not in the sky. Red-eye flights work because if they leave late enough at night in the west, they’ll arrive at a decent time in the east.

Of course, flights nowadays still go out pretty late and start pretty early, so for most U.S. airports, you’re probably only talking about 4 to 6 hours without passenger flights.

And, of course, if you fly out of a major foreign international hub like Bangkok, Dubai or Singapore, the situation is quite different. Here’s a (pre-Covid) departure board for Singapore Changi in the middle of the night:

Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 12.00.23 PM

Flights from these airports leave at odd times so they can either arrive at their destinations at a decent hour (it’s better to leave at 2am than to arrive at a city at 4am) or so they can line up with other departing and connecting flights.

Imagine being at the airport at 3am and it’s packed with people? It’s quite a scene if you’re not expecting it.

But for most airports that roll up the carpet at 10 or 11pm, now you know why. 😉

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary


askmrlee (@askmrlee) April 12, 2019 - 6:15 pm

I guess you never saw the Eastern Airlines Moonlight special flights.

SharonKurheg April 12, 2019 - 6:25 pm

From the 1980s? That was a whole different world then. Granted, it wasn’t specified in the post, but it was about nowadays. 😉

Derek October 10, 2021 - 5:55 pm

I think LaGuardia has a night time curfew but JFK does not.

Some airlines have tried a night time hub. US Airways or maybe its earlier name, America West, tried one in Las Vegas. Houston IAH had a mini A300 Eastern Airlines hub mostly for cargo but with passenger space on the main deck. I think if America West (now called American Airlines) tried a 2 am DFW hub, there might be limited demand. For examples, flights leaving at roughly midnight, arrive at DFW roughly 2 am, depart roughly 3 am and arrive anywhere from 6 am Eastern Time to 4 am Pacific Time.

For decades, Southwest did not have any red eye flights. At some point from roughly 12 midnight Pacific Time to 6 am Eastern Time, there were no Southwest flight in the air. I don’t know if it’s still that way. …I just looked up a few random flights. The last OAK-HNL flight arrives at about 10:30 pm. There are no overnight flights HNL-OAK, the last one leaving in the afternoon, arriving OAK at 12:20 am from OGG. Ther are no overnight flights OAK-BWI. The first BWI flight leaves around 6 am. So about 3 hours with no WN planes in the air.

Tkctmmm April 16, 2023 - 12:50 pm

What surprises (actually vexes) me the most is that our beloved MCO doesn’t have customs officials available before 10am, so no planes can leave before then. I feeelance for a charter carrier that wants/needs to fly at 8:30am in order to get our passengers where they are supposed to be in a timely fashion, and we’re always delayed leaving MCO. It seems bizarre that a busy international airport refuses to spend the few extra $ it would cost to staff the customs office early enough to cover lucrative departures.

SharonKurheg April 16, 2023 - 12:55 pm

I would say maybe it’s because there wouldn’t be enough flights to cover the costs of hiring customs officers, or paying them to start earlier in the day. But this is MCO we’re talking about…besides being busy, it’s ALWAYS getting flights from all over the world (all hail Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter!). Has it always been like this, or just post-pandemic? (if the latter maybe it’s just not being able to find enough people to hire?)

Tkctmmm April 16, 2023 - 1:17 pm

Hi Sharon,
You extrapolated and I should have clarified that I was talking about international flights.

As for whether it’s historical or just post-pandemic, I don’t know.


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