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 often do their pick-ups and deliveries at night. 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 2 am than to arrive at a city at 4 am) or so they can line up with other departing and connecting flights.

Imagine being at the airport at 3 a.m. and it being 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 11 pm, now you know why. 😉

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

1 comment

harv July 8, 2024 - 9:24 am

SNA (John Wayne Airport in Orange County California has time restrictions). The county prohibits commercial departures between 10:00 PM and 7:00 AM (8:00 AM on Sundays) and commercial arrivals between 11:00 PM and 7:00 AM (8:00 AM on Sundays). Exceptions can be made for an emergency, mechanical, air traffic control, or weather delay, which is beyond the airline’s control.


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