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The Poll Results Are In: Readers Share Their Best and Worst US Airlines

March 13, 2017
5 min read
airplane at sunset
The Poll Results Are In: Readers Share Their Best and Worst US Airlines
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Two weeks ago we released our first annual study of the best and worst airlines in the United States, based on number crunching, which contained some controversial results (the biggest issue: United Airlines came in #2). Then last week we asked you, our readers, for your opinion on which airline is the best in the US.

Several thousand of you voted. The results of that reader poll are now in, and it shows some similarities to our study and some differences.

Let's start with the airlines that finished in roughly the same place in both rankings. In the bottom two spots of the readers poll are Spirit and Frontier, which are identical to the bottom two airlines in our study. It seems regardless of whether you're looking at hard numbers or customer perception, Spirit and Frontier are not impressive airlines.

Just ahead of those two carriers is Hawaiian Airlines, which also matched its 8th place finish in both reader opinions and our study. Whether it's Hawaiian's high prices, lack of size or perhaps just an unfamiliarity amongst many travelers, the airline just doesn't get a lot of love. Also finishing in a similar spot in both rankings is American Airlines, who took 5th place in our TPG study and 6th place in the readers poll. It appears both customers and statistics agree that American is a consistently average airline, neither top of the line nor bottom of the barrel.

So who's the big winner of the readers poll? Delta. By a lot. Is that a surprise? Probably not. As we noted in our original story, Delta has a pretty solid reputation as an airline, and the main reason it ended up in 7th place in our study was because it has relatively high airfares. But while price is a major factor with casual travelers, perhaps it's less so to TPG readers. Why? One reason may be that price isn't a concern to business flyers, whose companies pay for their tickets. For those folks, getting to their destination on time and with their bags in hand is by far the most important criteria, and Delta runs one of the top on-time operations in the industry.

Delta hit rough air in our study but soared with readers. Image courtesy Gietje/Wikipedia.

Perhaps a more fascinating aspect of Delta's win in the reader poll is that TPG readers — who are much more familiar with the ins and outs of frequent flyer programs than the general public — don't seem to mind that Delta's SkyMiles program is far from the best. There's no denying that Delta has led the way when it comes to loyalty program devaluations. It was the first to move to revenue-based earning, the first to incorporate a dollar qualification for elite status and it remains the only airline that flat out hides its award charts. Delta has calculated that by running a solid airline, it can cut back on its loyalty program and still retain customers. TPG readers appear to agree.

Another airline that did better with the readers is Southwest, and that's also not so surprising. As we noted in our original story, Southwest has some fierce fans who like the airline's quirks, and not charging fees to check a bag or cancel tickets inspires a lot of positive feelings from customers.

On the other hand, a real surprise is that the overall winner of our original rankings, Alaska Airlines, came in 5th with readers. Alaska generally has a solid fan base and the fact that it came in at the top of our study didn't provoke much reader criticism. It may very well be that Alaska's pre-merger smallish footprint means many readers haven't had an experience with the airline in order to rank it as their favorite.

Readers ranked United only a few spots lower than we did in our study.

While we're on the subject of reader criticism, it's interesting to note that United Airlines, whose second-place finish in our original study engendered by far the most negative feedback from readers, only came in two slots lower in the readers poll, finishing 4th. Obviously second place and fourth place are not the same thing, but it wasn't a case of United ending up on complete opposite sides of the rankings. Are United haters simply a more vocal contingent than United lovers?

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JetBlue also moved up two spots from fourth in our study to second place with readers. JetBlue features a combination of reasonable prices and comfortable cabins with more than average legroom, free Wi-Fi from gate-to-gate and live TV at every seat. Clearly that combination impresses customers.

Finally, the other airline besides Alaska with the largest drop between the two sets of rankings is Virgin America, which fell all the way from 3rd to 7th. Virgin is definitely a hit-and-miss proposition — when you look at the individual criteria in our study, you can see the airline does very well in airfare, cabin comfort and baggage, but poorly in ancillary fees, on-time arrivals and the overall size of its route network. It would seem TPG readers have experienced more of the negatives than the positives.

Our readers have now officially spoken, but of course we're always open to hearing even more from you. Our poll is officially closed, but we're eager to hear why you personally like or dislike a particular airline. Share your opinion in the comments below.

Featured image by Getty Images/moodboard RF