If travel is all about the journey, then it could be argued that the most important part of any trip is the flight. So when we set out to determine our Editor’s Choice award in the category of Best U.S. Airline for 2017, we considered the key factors that are most likely to affect the average traveler: reliability, fees, legroom, seat width, number of routes, and other elements that contribute to overall satisfaction. But which of U.S. airline came out on top?
To arrive at a winner, we rated the coach/economy product for the six largest U.S. airlines: Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and United. We excluded Frontier and Spirit because we knew, going in, that neither would come close to a top score based on our criteria. We excluded Allegiant, Hawaiian, and Sun Country because of their limited coverage of special markets, and we excluded Virgin America because of its merger with Alaska.
Among these six, two airlines came out nearly even, with the winner edging the runner up by just three points in our overall score.
Best Domestic Airline for 2017: The Methodology
We rated the six candidates on the basis of seven factors, as graded on a scale of 1-5 for a series of components in each factor. Then we weighted the factors on a 1-5 scale to compute composite scores in the following categories:
- Hard product: Legroom, seat width, audiovisual entertainment systems, at-seat power availability, and the airline’s “stretched economy” option.
- Soft product: How well the traveling public likes the experience.
- Reliability: How well the airline performs as it promises.
- Scope: How far and to how many places it can carry you.
- Fees: How badly it gouges you for the extras.
- Complaints. How many travelers are irked enough to complain to the Department of Transportation.
- Frequent flyer program: How useful the program is to the average leisure traveler.
Best Domestic Airline for 2017: The Winner
Alaska is the top U.S. airline for domestic coach travel for 2017. It scored at or near the top in most of the individual ratings category and poorly in none.
We viewed domestic airlines through the lens of scoring how well each airline is likely to serve leisure travelers and infrequent business travelers in coach/economy class for travel within the U.S. and to nearby Canadian, Mexican, and island points. Intercontinental travel is a completely different arena, requiring different scoring systems. And frequent “road warrior” business travelers are an entirely different traveler group, many of whom travel in patterns dictated by company policy.
Alaska scored best for the factors that matter most to ordinary travelers: its hard product and soft product are at or near the top; it charges for checked bags and ticket changes, but its fees are not as outrageous as those on the most other U.S. airlines; its frequent flyer program retains some extremely useful partners and still bases earned credit on miles flown, a big plus for infrequent travelers; it scores well for reliability and complaints; and although it is largely a domestic airline, Alaska’s partnerships with other key airlines around the world give it worldwide scope.
Best Domestic Airline for 2017: Other Finalists
Studies show that when travelers are planning a trip, fare and schedule trump “quality” factors every time. Accordingly, those quality factors are in the nature of tie-breakers, and they come into play only when you have a choice of lines at comparable fares and schedules. Moreover, even the top-rated airline is irrelevant if it doesn’t go where you want.
Thus, there’s no possible “one size fits all” award. Three clear “honorable mention” awards emerged, any of which may well be your first choice where Alaska doesn’t fly:
- JetBlue did well across the board, especially for its simple high-payback frequent flyer program and by far the best hard product in its “stretched economy” cabins. Unfortunately, JetBlue is in the process of downgrading its hard product, so its appeal is likely to decrease in future years.
- Delta earned the best scores among the three giant network lines, reaching at the top for scope and doing as well as or better than its peers on most other factors. For now, it seems to be outdoing American and United, which are both playing a catch-up game.
- Southwest is the runaway winner for people who hate fees, and it provides a good hard product.
Best Domestic Airline for 2017: Additional Methodological Details
Each of the seven key rating factors consisted of several components. In all cases, raw data were converted to a 1-5 scale for computation of total factor scores:
Hard product. Scores are based on seat pitch, seat width, availability and technical level of inflight entertainment (IFE), availability of power ports, and the extra room provided in the stretched cabin, if available. All input was derived from tabulations on SeatGuru, with pitch and width receiving higher weight than other components. Weighting factor: 5.
Soft product. Scores are based on customer satisfaction and preference results from surveys published by AirLikes, SkyTrax, Wallet Hub, JD Power, and the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), together with numbers of complaints about poor service filed with the Department of Transportation, adjusted for relative carrier size. Weighting factor: 5.
Reliability. Scores are based on published Department of Transportation data covering on-time performance, percentage of flights cancelled, numbers of mishandled bags, and involuntary bumping. Weighting factor: 5.
Scope. Scores are based on number of planes, number of destinations, number of continents served, and extent of partnerships and alliances. Most data were obtained from airline websites, together with some industry compilations. Weighting factor: 3.
Fees. Scores are based on relative fees charged for the first checked bag, second checked bag, a ticket change, a same-day flight change, phone or agent booking, and for unaccompanied minors. Fee data were extracted from SmarterTravel’s ongoing fee tabulations. Fees for American, Delta, and United were based on prices for their primary coach/economy tickets, not the recently announced sub-economy fares. Weighting factor: 4.
Complaints. Scores are based on Department of Transportation Consumer Reports. Weighting factor: 3.
Frequent flyer program. Scores are based on ease of earning and using credit, along with passenger survey reports published by U.S. News and World Reports, Wallet Hub, IdeaWorks data on payback, IdeaWorks data on award seat availability, and analysis of point values. Weighting factor: 2.
You might think we should have included “fares” as a scoring category, but that really isn’t feasible. Although you see some statistics on average fares, those numbers don’t tell the entire story. The only relevant fare numbers would be for lowest available fares, adjusted for stage length, and nobody produces such data. Moreover, it’s clear that most of the lines flying any given route match each other for lowest fare. The only exceptions are Frontier and Spirit, airlines that actually post minimal fares but add fees for almost every element of travel but the seat. And the giant lines have recently introduced now minimal fare levels to match those lines. None of the other lines can be called “low fare.”
We specifically excluded credit-card benefits, an entirely different and extremely complex question that we address in a separate awards category. We also excluded fleet age as a figure that doesn’t translate directly into any differences that are not captured in the factors we did score.
More from SmarterTravel:
- The Best Hotel Loyalty Programs for 2017
- The Best Frequent Flyer Programs for 2017
- The Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards of 2017
Editor’s note: SeatGuru is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Group, which also operates SmarterTravel.