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What’s the ‘Best’ U.S. Airline for You?

SmarterTravel

It’s that time of year again: Over the last few months, you’ve probably seen a handful of “best of” rankings toting the top U.S. airlines … with some incredibly varied results. That shouldn’t be surprising, because hardly anyone agrees on exactly what factors airline rankings should include.

But shouldn’t there be some definitive groups of top U.S. airlines we can all agree upon? Here’s what most rankings look at, and where to find reliable data on the top U.S. airlines for you.

Factors in Deciding the Top U.S. Airlines

Quite a few of the rankings consist of only a single “best” composite, usually an overall take generated by surveys of travelers’ opinions. But if you want a more nuanced basis for determining the best, you have to understand at least three critical components of a “best” airline.

Performance: Airline performance is a mix of operational factors typically including on-time arrivals, lost baggage, denied boarding situations, and consumer complaints, and it can be quantified by government data.

Hard Product: “How good is the airline?” as an objective question has two components, one of which is hard product—measured by tangible things like seat width, legroom, availability of inflight entertainment and connectivity. Hard product can be reliably measured, based on data tabulated on airline-watching websites such as SeatGuru (one of SmarterTravel’s sister companies).

Soft Product: Then there’s the service element, or soft product. This is mostly performance of crew and agents, along with how an airline directs its check-in, boarding, and baggage processes. The only way to truly measure an airline’s soft product is through passenger survey data.

Then there are some other minor “best” factors to consider in determining the top U.S. airlines for you, like:

  • Frequent flyer program: If you fly a lot, the generosity of an airline’s frequent flyer program can be a deciding factor in airline choice. If you’re an occasional flyer, not so much.
  • Scope: You may base some top U.S. airline decisions on how many places you can fly to— the bigger the scope, the better. But size is not a question when selecting an airline for a specific destination: If you often fly to Albuquerque, you care only about airlines that fly to Albuquerque, and probably don’t care how many other places any of them fly to.
  • Fares: Clearly, offering the lowest fares on any given route is a potentially important factor. Sadly, you can’t really compute any sort of overall “fare” figure other than looking at fare specifics for any given trip. A few rating systems try to include a fare factor by using government data on average fares, but those numbers are often incorrect and misleading.
  • Class: In any airline scoring, class of service is the elephant in the room. The hard product in economy/main cabin/coach class ranges from poor to terrible around the world; the soft product in the rear cabin may be satisfactory, but it’s still pretty minimal. Thus, for both soft and hard product, you find a huge gap between economy and any premium class. So any system that doesn’t show separate ratings for economy and premium classes is highly suspect: A composite score biased heavily to business class is meaningless for rear-cabin travelers.

Selecting the Top U.S. Airlines for You:

Now that you understand the factors of deciding the top U.S. airlines for you, these resources might have some answers. Here’s what rankings they decided, and how.

TripAdvisor Ratings

 One of the most recent set of airline ratings are TripAdvisor’s (SmarterTravel’s parent company) Travelers’ Choice Airline Awards, which compiled thousands of traveler reviews. Most of the focus on the news was on the top 10 “best in the world” results, predictably featuring Singapore at the top and mostly Pacific-area lines following. The only North American line to make the list was Southwest, coming in at number six.

According to TripAdvisor, the top U.S. airlines are: Southwest as number one overall airline, followed by Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, and WestJet. Economy-specific ratings, from the top down, are similar: Southwest, Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Porter, Sun Country, and WestJet.

Factors It Considers: Although the results are not detailed by the three individual quality elements, it’s clear that soft product was very important to the final TripAdvisor rankings. Featured comments focused on the inflight service and Southwest’s free checked-bag policy. Measurably, JetBlue and Porter have superior hard products, but apparently that isn’t enough to put them at the very top.

Airline Quality Rating (AQR)

The annual Airline Quality Rating always receives a lot of attention, and for good reason. The quantitative ratings are based on U.S. Department of Transportation statistics—and calculated to three significant figures, no less—to strictly measure the performance element of airline quality. Its most recent rankings for top U.S. airlines, from the top down, are Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, Hawaiian, Southwest, Virgin America (now Alaska), United, American, Frontier, and Spirit. Scores for American, Frontier, and Spirit are substantially lower than the other lines.

Factors It Considers: AQR does not attempt to cover the “how good” element of product. But it’s a good indicator of performance.

Consumer Reports Ratings

For economy class, Consumer Reports rates Southwest as tops, followed by Alaska, JetBlue, Virgin America, Hawaiian, Delta, Allegiant, American, United, Frontier, and Spirit. Ratings are a composite of 11 factors that incorporate hard product and soft product, but—surprisingly—not reliability.

Factors It Considers: Consumer Reports presents a better than average analysis of hard and soft product. The detailed findings are unfortunately only available only to paid subscribers. 

ACSI Ratings

The American Customer Satisfaction Index is one of the more reliable scoring sources for customer service. Recently-published results for 2018 report Southwest, Alaska, and JetBlue at the top, scoring 79-80; Allegiant, American, and Delta bunched in the middle, at 74, United below those three, at 67, and Frontier and Spirit at the bottom scoring 62.

Factors It Considers: ACSI is one of the more detailed and credible scoring systems. It emphasizes soft product but also includes some hard product and reliability factors.

Skytrax Ratings

In common with many other systems, the “world’s best” lists from Skytrax include mainly Pacific lines. Its latest report found the 20 top worldwide lines in economy class include no lines based in North America: Nine of the top 10 are in the Pacific area; Lufthansa is the only European line to make the grade. The Skytrax top 10 airlines in North America, though, were Air Canada, Delta, Alaska, JetBlue, Virgin America (moot), Southwest, Porter, WestJet, Air Transat, and American.

Factors It Considers: Skytrax ratings are arguably the most well-known, but they include some seriously questionable methodology. Results are based on voluntary surveys, and as far as I can tell are heavily biased toward long-haul premium class service. I include Skytrax ratings mainly because they get so much attention rather than their practical utility or methodological rigor.

WalletHub Ratings  

Want some more-specific classifications? WalletHub’s latest airline ratings show Alaska as best overall, Spirit as cheapest, Delta as most reliable, JetBlue as most comfortable, Hawaiian as best for pets, and Southwest as the least-complained-about. WalletHub shows specific ratings for these factors, too, listed in order from the top down:

  • Most Reliable: Delta, United, Alaska, Hawaiian, American, Spirit, Frontier, Southwest, and JetBlue.
  • Most Comfortable: JetBlue, American, Southwest, United, Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian, Spirit, and Frontier.
  • Cheapest: Spirit, Frontier, Alaska, JetBlue, United, American, Hawaiian, Delta, and Southwest.
  • Most Satisfactory (fewest complaints): Southwest, Alaska, Delta, JetBle, Hawaiian, United, American, Frontier, and Spirit.

Factors It Considers: This ranking is useful, but some of the detailed scoring is perplexing. For example, if JetBlue is more comfortable, how come it gets the same legroom rating as every other line?

The Outliers

Other sources that issue airline ratings that seem interesting rather than particularly methodical include:

  • AirlineRatings says Air New Zealand is “airline of the year” for 2018. Korean takes the top spot for economy class, based mainly on a superior hard product.
  • The Points Guy rates the top U.S. airlines as Alaska, Southwest, Delta, United, Frontier, American, Spirit, JetBlue, and Hawaiian. But the ratings are heavily biased to reflect airline size and average fares, neither of which is a relevant quality measure.
  • Temken Experience Ratings list U.S. lines, from the top down, as Southwest, Alaska, JetBlue, Virgin America, Delta, United, American, and Spirit. I haven’t had much exposure to this source, but it seems focused, like ACSI, on experience with results in general agreement.

Frequent Flyer Programs to Consider

IdeaWorks reports have always been the gold standard for analysis of frequent flyer awards, and the most recent report listed Alaska as having the highest payback—what you get compared with what you have to pay to get it. Alaska was followed by Southwest, JetBlue, Delta, United, American, and Air Canada. But frequent flyer value is a moving target, with frequent devaluations of earning scales, redeeming scales, or both.

The blogosphere generally rates Alaska tops, too, mainly because of its wide range of attractive partner lines and its adherence (so far) to the older mileage-based earning system.

What It All Means

With all the methodology differences, it’s not surprising that one person’s “best” airline can be another’s “worst.” But given a chance to examine a bunch of different approaches and results, you might find that two conclusions rise to prominence:

Overall, among North American lines, Alaska, JetBlue, and Southwest tend to do better than their competitors, maybe for different sets of reasons but generally consistently at or near the top. Among the big three, Delta seems to have an advantage over American and United in most categories that travelers consider important.

What’s the top U.S. airline for your needs? Comment below.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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