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Editors' Choice Awards 2011: Most Customer-Friendly Airline

by SmarterTravel Staff
Editors' Choice Badge: Customer Friendly Airline
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 20, 2011. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, AirTran, baggage, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, low-cost airline, Southwest, Virgin America, weather.

Winner: JetBlue

JetBlue wins again—surprise, surprise. But unlike in 2010, when the carrier won the award easily, 2011 was the year many airlines caught up.

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Like last year, we came to this conclusion by considering the Department of Transportation's (DOT) 2010 statistics for on-time arrivals, lost baggage, involuntary bumping, and complaints, as well as fees, cabin comfort, and route network. Each airline was given a number of points for these categories, and the airlines were ranked on their total score.

So what changed? Basically, JetBlue's operational performance dipped slightly, while other carriers either improved or held their ground. This year, for example, AirTran delivered better on-time performance, mishandled fewer bags, and had less consumer complaints than JetBlue. JetBlue finished dead last in on-time performance among the airlines considered for this award.

Of course, AirTran is now part of Southwest. But another carrier is rising fast, and could topple JetBlue soon: Virgin America.

Virgin America, our runner-up, doesn't report operational statistics to the DOT like other airlines do because the DOT considers Virgin America too small (for now). However, Virgin America's own internal stats place it second only to Hawaiian in on-time performance, and tops when it comes to mishandled bags. Combine that with an excellent onboard product and a growing network, and it's clear Virgin America will challenge JetBlue soon.

But, for now, JetBlue reigns supreme, and deservedly so. The airline is affordable, doesn't gouge travelers with fees, and still provides one of the best in-flight experiences available. It performed well in most operational categories, and ranked number one for involuntary bumping.

AirTran followed JetBlue, and Virgin America, Hawaiian, and Southwest rounded out the top five. Southwest, which came in third last year, lost considerable ground to JetBlue mainly because of a significant drop in on-time performance. Since Southwest can't compete on amenities, top-notch performance is essential. The drop in on-time numbers probably has more than a little to do with launching service to LaGuardia (an airport notorious for delays and cancelations, especially in winter months).

As was the case last year, legacy carriers filled in the bottom portion of our rankings.

Editors' Choice 2011 homepage

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