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As ‘Best Airline’ Surveys Emerge, Is There a Consensus Winner?

This seems to be the season for “Best Airline” surveys, a good reminder that there is no definitive best U.S. carrier, because there is no single correct way to evaluate the contenders.

Still, it’s worth a review of recent airline ratings by different sources to see whether there’s any overlap in their findings. Maybe there is a consensus best airline, after all.


TripAdvisor’s best-airline list is based on reader feedback, specifically airline reviews submitted between February 2016 and February 2017.

Among U.S. airlines, readers favored Delta over other major airlines. Among “Mid-Size & Low Cost Airlines,” a rather awkward category, JetBlue was top-ranked.

Airline Quality Rating

The annual Airline Quality Rating study, a joint undertaking by professors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical and Wichita State universities, incorporates 15 elements in four areas of airline performance: mishandled bags, on-time arrivals, denied boardings, and customer complaints. The report synthesizes data compiled by the DOT for its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, and assigns U.S. airlines a higher or lower AQR (Airline Quality Rating) accordingly.

Applying those criteria, the study ranked U.S. airlines as follows:

  1. Alaska
  2. Delta
  3. Virgin America
  4. JetBlue
  5. Hawaiian
  6. Southwest
  7. SkyWest
  8. United
  9. American
  10. ExpressJet
  11. Spirit
  12. Frontier

SmarterTravel Editors’ Choice

For its 2017 Editors’ Choice rankings, SmarterTravel considered the seven factors “most likely to affect the average traveler”: hard product, soft product, reliability, scope, fees, complaints, frequent flyer program. Each factor was assigned a weight, according to its relative importance, and the contenders were then rated accordingly.

The top five:

  1. Alaska
  2. JetBlue
  3. Southwest
  4. Delta
  5. United

The Points Guy’s Best and Worst Airlines

For The Points Guy’s contribution to the best-airline studies, 10 criteria were considered, falling into four general categories: price, convenience, headaches, and extras.

The top five:

  1. Alaska
  2. United
  3. Virgin America
  4. JetBlue
  5. American

Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards

In the domestic airline category, Travel + Leisure readers rated airlines according to cabin comfort, service, food, customer service, and value.

  1. Virgin America
  2. JetBlue
  3. Hawaiian
  4. Alaska
  5. Southwest

Best of the Best

Many surveys, many rating criteria, many outcomes. Are there any airlines that rate highly across the surveys?

As it turns out, there is one airline that is top rated in three of the five surveys, and ranked in the top five in a fourth. Alaska Airlines. If there is a consensus favorite, that’s it.

For a runner-up, JetBlue placed in the top five in all five surveys, making it a lock for second place and a strong contender for the top spot.

Reader Reality Check

What are your choices for the best U.S. airlines?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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