What Is The Best US Airline? Virgin America Apparently (According to Consumer Reports)

by on May 23, 2013 · 21 comments

in Airline Industry, Spirit, Virgin America

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Yesterday USA Today’s Nancy Trejos (who has been on a roll breaking travel stories) covered Consumer Reports’ annual airline satisfaction survey and to be honest, I wasn’t really surprised with the results given the poll questions. Voters were asked to rate their satisfaction with the airlines’: check-in ease, cabin-crew service, cabin cleanliness, seating comfort, baggage handling, and in-flight entertainment.

The results were as follows:

1. Virgin America, 89

2. Southwest Airlines, 85

3. JetBlue Airways, 85

4. Hawaiian Airlines, 82

5. Alaska Airlines, 81

6. Frontier Airlines, 78

7. Delta Air Lines, 71

8. US Airways, 66

9. American Airlines, 66

10. United Airlines, 63

11. Spirit Airlines, 50

My Thoughts
I still haven’t flown Virgin America because the opportunity cost for me, as a top-tier flyer with American, Delta and United, is just too high. I’d have to forego complimentary first/business class upgrades (Virgin America only allows their elites access to premium coach seats) and earning frequent flyer miles in my preferred accounts (Virgin Elevate points are okay, but not great for premium travel). As a travel enthusiast I want to try them out to see what all the fuss is about, but I’ll do it when I need to do a short hop on the west coast so the opportunity cost is minimized.

Virgin America took the top prize for good in-flight entertainment, seats and overall comfort

Virgin America took the top prize for good in-flight entertainment, seats and overall comfort

As for Spirit, I’m not surprised at all. Not only do they have a horrible frequent flyer program with a consumer-unfriendly mileage expiration policy that expires miles when an account becomes inactive for a period of 3 months or more (most airlines allow at least 12-18 months), but they nickel and dime their passengers on ancillary fees, carry-on luggage, online booking fees and soft drinks on board. However with all of the customer horror stories of lost luggage, nasty employees and gotcha fees, Spirit continues to operate as a profitable carrier, with 2013 results so far beating analysts expectations. Why would consumers choose the “worst” airline? Because they beat out other competitors on price and serve airports not focused on by other airlines. So clearly consumers choose airlines based on price, so why would Consumer Reports not include price as part of their survey?

I think many people would argue that the best airline is the one that gets them from point A to point B safely, cheaply and in a timely manner. Especially on shorter flights, who cares about in-flight entertainment? I personally never use in-flight entertainment since I always bring my own laptop/iPad/book/iPhone with my own Bose headphones. Even when I think an airline offers inflight entertainment, there’s no guarantee the system will work or provide actual entertainment (try finding a good movie to watch on Air Europa!).

To boldly name the “Best Airlines,” I’d also think you’d want to take into account fees, frequent flyer program, on-time performance and of course fares. But I understand that polls need to be kept to a minimum amount of questions and I do think overall the survey captures a generic snapshot of US airlines.

What are your thoughts on the survey?

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  • Goat Rodeo

    Not particularly a surprise – with rock bottom fare sales that destroy prices of most airlines… new planes… decent inflight entertainment. It isnt a surprise that Virgin is ranking high. I wonder if they can keep that ranking once the realities of the business settle in and they’re not selling tickets for less than cost.

  • Nick

    I agree with your assessment. Most non-frequent fliers are wooed by fancy lighting, snacks and in-flight entertainment. I’m working towards Premier 1K this year and have married myself to United. I won’t even look at another airline.

  • George

    I would echo these comments and just add that for those who don’t fly enough to have exalted status on airlines Virgin’s basic coach service blows away the mainstream carriers. It’s not just snacks and club music, it’s the quality of the seats and TVs, the friendliness of the crew, the excellent website, etc

  • Jody Bruce

    I am always amazed at the negativity towards Spirit. True, they nickel & dime you. But their frequent flyer program is amazing. If you have their credit card, you only have to use it once/month (i.e., to buy a cup of cofffee) to keep your miles from expiring. But the best part is several times a year, you can fly roundtrip for as low as 5,000 miles! I must have booked 12+ flights in the past several years for 5,000 miles roundtrip each. Well worth the baggage fees! (By the way, you can save on all their fees if you print your boarding pass beforehand, don’t choose your own seat, and pack all your stuff in a 16x14x12 backpack which is considered a free personal item… plus, their seats are WAY more comfy than Delta’s!).

  • Cory

    I’ve never flown Spirit because it’s not convenient for me to do so, so I’ve never had to cram into one of their seats. I’d have no issue doing it, as getting to my destination is the goal and I can put up with short-term discomfort if Spirit is the best option. They are very easy to hate, but I think that’s misguided. I like that they’re there, and wish that they’d fly more routes and more destinations to possibly put some fare pressure on the big guys.

  • alan

    “plus, their seats are WAY more comfy than Delta’s!” – Are you kidding? If you are given an oridinary seat (not those needs $$$ to purchase), the pitch distance is obviously smaller than those legacy airlines. In addition, those seats cannot be inclined.

  • Scott

    I’ll echo George’s comments. If you’re the AVERAGE traveler (3-4 trips per year at very most), then Virgin beats everyone in a landslide. This isn’t a valuation of their FF programs, it’s a valuation of perceived quality. The pants and I flew VX from SFO-MCO (the now defunct route) just last April, after taking the UA direct flight in the other direction. For people who want to pack more for their destination, carrying a laptop or some other device that takes up valuable carry-on space just isn’t feasible. I did bring my noise canceling headphones though, and having the TV made time zoom by in comparison to the UA flight, which was cramped (could barely even get my backpack between my seat and the back of the row in front of me just to get it under my seat – no such problem on any other airline). CR’s ratings are supposed to help the most people, rather than focusing on the niche of people that are on planes multiple times per week, because segmented, that’s a very small percentage compared to the US population who actually “travels”. I have a feeling that if Allegiant was allowed on the list, they’d take the bottom spot. I won’t even fly them anymore. They’re absolutely awful. Aren’t 3 of their 5 757′s grounded with engine issues?

  • OldCurmudgeon

    I’m a bit surprised, too. Yes, Spirit charges for absolutely everything. However, as a casual traveler, my experience has been that my typical package (reserved seat + 1 checked bag + snack/beverage) costs dramatically less than that same package on Delta.

  • Matt Campbell

    Ditto George and Scott. I flew Virgin from SFO-SAN, and while it was a short flight, the *overall* experience was great. Friendly check-in agent, awesome waiting area at the gate with funny signage, dimmed cabin lights while boarding with soft blue/purple lighting. I upgraded to Main Cabin Select for less than $40 and all of the food was free, which is ordered directly on the on-screen system by adding things to your “cart” and checking out. Flight attendants bring it by a little while later, and availability gets updated real-time so if they run out of something, it grays itself out. That was really cool. The seat itself was very comfortable and about the same as Jet Blue’s Even More Space seats.

    Their routes are limited right now, they can be pricey, and their status program isn’t as strong as legacy carriers, but for an average traveler going from A to B that wants a comfortable experience, I’d agree that Virgin America beats everyone else out right now.

  • adpage

    I completely agree: to the guy who rarely flies, their product looks a lot better than other airlines. Plus most of their planes are way newer than say American Airlines.

  • Jody Bruce

    Sorry, but my 6’1″ husband who has platinum status on Delta likes the Sprit “non-paid” seats better than the Delta coach seats. :)

  • hcc22

    As an-ex platinum flyer with American, I used to have the same mindset as TPG (opportunity cost is too high, since Virgin doesn’t upgrade elites to first and American does). However, when I actually flew Virgin, I realized that coach on Virgin is about 5 times better experience than first on American. Whenever I can, I always pick Virgin over the other carriers.

  • janakj

    Brian, it’s easy to forget the non-Frequent Flier experience on the legacy carriers. It’s not great. Simple example: most aisle and window seats (even without extra legroom), apart from the very back of the plane, cost extra for non-FFs on the legacy carriers, whereas on Virgin/Southwest/JetBlue they’re first-come, first-serve. That alone goes a long way towards experience and comfort as a casual traveler. Combine that with newer planes, newer FAs, etc., and the overall experience ranks more highly.

    However, the aspects of the experience that make it good for a casual traveler make it so-so for the frequent flier. I’m used to getting the priority security line (actually, PreCheck) every time when flying on AA, getting free MCE seats, ALWAYS having aisle access, getting free checked luggage (and priority luggage delivery), getting lounge access with my Amex Plat, etc. Those often offset the old transcon 762s, the lack of good power, etc. I don’t care about IFE because I work or use my iPad, but until recently casual travelers would rely on IFE. Virgin’s new FF program only offsets a few of these.

    As a result, if a casual traveler asks me what airline to book on, I almost always say Virgin or JetBlue. If someone has to travel repeatedly, I tell them to pick the legacy carrier of their choice and to stick with it and gain status.

    The truth is, most Americans are only casual travelers — and these ratings will always reflect that.

  • janakj

    5 times is a bit of an exaggeration; I’d much rather take an American Main Cabin Extra seat over a Main Cabin seat on Virgin. In particular, I find the MCE seats, especially the bulkheads, on the AA 763s, to be extremely comfortable.

    But… if you’re talking about a exit row extra legroom seat on an AA 762, which is freezing cold, compared to the Main Cabin Select seat on a Virgin A320, there’s no comparison, the latter wins.

  • Lark

    Elevate Gold status, which you had but disregarded, is valuable. Definitely different than how the legacy’s handle status though.
    Upgrade to Main Cabin Select is free at – 24 hours. These are the Economy bulkhead and exit row seats. Still economy, but nice legroom and all of your food and drinks free…
    From Main Cabin Select, Gold’s can purchase an upgrade to F at – 24 hours as well (ahead of everyone else), which is a nice feature. The price is $39 – $169, depending upon the lenth of the flight.
    So, as a Gold, if I get an inexpensive VX fare, then the free upgrade to MCS, the difference to purchase F is usually not too bad (relative to fares on other airlines).
    So, you are right, no free upgrades to F. But their system is elite friendly, transparent, and often one of the most cost effective ways to secure an F seat…
    Most importantly, as you found, you need to live in a place where their frequency of flights and destincations meets your needs!

  • ccdevi

    The problem with Virgin is simply lack of routes and price. I fly out of NY. The only place I go where Virgin is an option is Vegas and their prices are always significantly higher than the legacy carriers. Just searched a weekend in July and Virgin is 50% more than UA, close to that on AA and still 100 more on Delta, my preferred carrier (bc I have status). And if you search business class, forget it, Virgin is often twice as much.

  • hcc22

    I honestly believe that virgin coach is much better than first on American. As a young flyer, I prefer attractive, younger flight attendants over unionized, obese flight attendants. I like that I can watch live television as opposed to “Up in the Air”. I also like how I can chat with the cute girl in the row behind me. Not to mention the craft beers and edamame wraps are far superior than flat bud lights and turkey sandwiches. The experience on virgin is fun and relaxing whereas the American experience is dull and stressful. Just my opinion though, to each his own!

  • janakj

    Do people really take you up on the chat? I assumed people found it creepy. Now you can send a drink, too…

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve flown both a lot, and you’re right about all the above (although the “obese” flight attendants are an exaggeration). However, the airport experience itself also counts, and Virgin is way subpar *if* you’re a frequent flier.

    As an AA FF, I never stand in the regular security line, in fact, i never stand in the premium security line either; I have PreCheck, so I get through security in 30 seconds without opening anything. I don’t print my boarding pass, as there’s an AA app that adds my boarding pass to Passbook. You can’t get PreCheck on Virgin yet, and Virgin doesn’t have a mobile app.

    In JFK, Virgin flies out of the small wing in T4. It’s crowded, relatively old, and has really bad food options. For American, T8 has two above-average Admirals Clubs and has decent food choices. (Both are the same in SFO, but the security caveat still applies.) In general, I prefer to pick up my meals on the ground and eat them on the plane.

    As for onboard satellite TV, I’ve found it to be too flaky to really enjoy, and if you’re in regular coach, movies cost money. I’d rather use my iPad and the content on it, which negates that advantage.

    Anyway, your point remains valid, just pointing out there are other aspects that may affect flight decisions. Again, many of these apply more if you fly enough to be a frequent flier.

  • janakj

    What’s your success rate in upgrading? Pre-Elevate Gold, I only sometimes managed to get a MCS seat; often the middle ones were the only ones left. I suspect it depends on the route…

  • janakj

    Virgin’s based out of the West Coast. The best East Coast equivalent, for casual travelers, is JetBlue. Not a surprise they have high ratings too.

    As for prices, Virgin is very much linear; as their plane fills up, the prices go up. If you book way in advance, Virgin’s prices work well. However, for popular flights/routes it fills up too quick now. The legacy carriers use a much more complex pricing model, and often, if you’re willing to be flexible, you can “catch the ride” and get a cheap seat ~ 21 days before departure.

  • ceesiren

    As sucky as Spirit can be, I do have a couple of reasons I actually go out of my way to fly Spirit on occasion. First, the flights are very convenient between Portland and Las Vegas (2 per day each way). Yes, I think Alaska offers more flights and other carriers have some too, but what they DON’T have is the “Big Seats” that Spirit offers for $15 each way. The Big Seats are lovely first class leather seats at the front of the plane… for $15! Sure, there is no service involved… even pop will cost you… but who cares? It’s a short flight. Still it’s wonderful to be comfy in those big front seats! And the carry on charges? I admit at first I was outraged, but after taking a few flights with them I am amazed by how fast and efficient it makes boarding when people don’t lug on all those carry-on roller bags and then fight for the overhead bin. Every flight I’ve taken with them has actually left the gate a few minutes EARLY. Plus, you actually can bring a carry-on item for free, but it is restricted in size and must fit under the seat in front of you (except for the big seats in the bulkhead row where the flight attendant will actually place you carry-on in the overhead bin for you…free. (Still restricted in size, but with a little more latitude.

    Also, it’s kind of nice that you can book one-way flights for the same price as round trip. Now I book each way separately and then if my plans change in one direction (I want to leave earlier or later or return earlier or later, I’m good and only one half of my fare is affected. I started doing this after my husband was going to join me once a conference I was at ended and then decided to come a day early… the price had changed between when we originally booked and when he came and between that and the change fee it was MUCH more expensive. But if we just bought the new ticket instead of also paying the change fee… which we did… it invalidated the return ticket and we ended up having to buy that again too… also at a higher price since it was last minute. UGH.

    The other thing I DON’T like about them is they track FF points in a funky way. One of the flights to LAS from PDX goes through San Diego… an inconvenience that annoys me and makes the flight longer. I figured I’d at least earn more FF miles, but when I looked at my statement I noticed they only gave me the number I would have earned on a direct flight! I called and argued, but they told me that was their policy and there was nothing I could do about it.

    For about a month I planned to never fly them again… but then I had to go to Vegas for another conference and those Big Seats just called out to me and I caved. *sigh*

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