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Not many people have an airline they love. But almost everyone has one they hate.
From flight delays and cramped seats to bad customer service and lost luggage, airlines have a terrible reputation. In survey after survey, the airline industry ranks somewhere below most insurance sectors and only slightly above the cable television industry. Airlines are, to put it simply, not exactly adored.
But is that reputation earned? Or is it just a perception?
Perhaps an airline returned your suitcase two days late and missing three wheels, so you vowed never to travel with them again. But in any system where millions of passengers are transported on tens of thousands of flights each day in the US alone, a few bad incidents are unavoidable. So does your personal experience reflect the overall state of that particular airline, or did you just get unlucky and catch it on a bad day?
We set out to answer this quandary — by looking at the numbers. While most “Best of” airline rankings rely on customer surveys or reader polls, we wanted to study objective data. Is your airline really always late, or only when you happen to arrive two hours early at the airport? Are the seats measurably terrible, or do they just feel that way after six hours of fidgeting on them? And most importantly, is your airline really nickel-and-diming you to death with unnecessary fees, or are the costs offset by its competitively lower ticket prices?
To compile our report, we assembled data from sources across the industry. We scrutinized thousands of pages of government reports and corporate financial statements. We chose criteria based on what we believe regular passengers care about most.
And if you disagree with our choices, we’re even giving you the chance to re-weight our criteria yourself.
We adore international travel here at The Points Guy — meeting people from other cultures encourages a better understanding of humanity and of ourselves. We encourage everyone to get out of their comfort zone and take a trip outside the US at least once, and preferably often. But we also know that less than half of all Americans have a passport, which means the majority of people will only experience air travel on flights within the United States. Therefore, we elected to study domestic airlines — or in the case of large airlines, to differentiate their domestic operations from their international ones.
We also wanted to restrict our study to airlines that most people would have a decent chance of flying. There may be regional operators with excellent reputations, but if their only route is Nantucket to Martha’s Vineyard, most Americans are never going to experience that service.
So our report encompasses the ten largest airlines, as measured by the number of domestic passengers, and excluding regional carriers who partner with one or more of the airlines. We were unable to include Allegiant Air in our study since it was not possible to obtain enough data to accurately rank the airline. Our list of contenders is as follows:
While Alaska and Virgin America have completed their merger transaction, at this time they are still operating as two separate airlines, so we kept them separate in our rankings.
It’s a well-known truism of the airline industry that the overwhelming majority of flyers book airline tickets based on two factors — price and convenience. So in developing our criteria — 10 themes across four major categories — we wanted to make sure those two factors got the greatest weight.
When it comes to price, the actual cost of an airline ticket is now only a portion of the final cost for travelers given the explosion in ancillary fees in recent years (we’re thinking about baggage and change fees in particular), so we accounted for both airfare and fees in our calculations. For convenience, the more cities and routes an airline serves, the more options a customer has for getting the shortest flight at the best time of day. But the on-time arrival rate and the features of an airplane cabin — such as onboard Wi-Fi — are elements of convenience as well.
Of course, just because price and convenience are primary factors doesn’t mean we ignored the rest of what makes up an airline operation. After much consideration, we identified the following 10 criteria in four broad categories — PRICE, CONVENIENCE, HEADACHES, and EXTRAS — and weighted them as follows:
Once we had our candidates and our criteria, we set about finding ways to measure it all. For some elements, this was extremely straightforward. Statistics on lost baggage and involuntary bumps (being denied boarding, not turbulence) are reported by the Department of Transportation (D.O.T.) on a monthly basis, so in those cases it was just a matter of looking up the data.
Other criteria were a little harder to find. Airlines don’t like to tell the general public how much we’re spending on airfare, but they love telling investors how much money they’re collecting. In fact, there’s a standard measure in the industry known as “passenger yield per mile.” That metric is calculated by dividing the amount of passenger revenue an airline has collected from tickets by the number of passengers, and then again by the number of miles flown. The final result tells investors how much an airline gets paid in cents per customer per mile. For investors, the higher this number, the better, but a higher number means passengers are paying more. Or to put it more simply, passenger yield is how much you, the customer, are paying on average in airfare for each mile you fly.
Passenger yield is reported by airlines on a quarterly basis to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), which puts the info into an online public database called TranStats. That same database also contains legally required reports on baggage and change fees collected by each airline, and the database can be filtered by domestic or worldwide performance. So thanks to the BTS, we were able to assemble all the data we needed on price in just one place.
Then came a few tricky items. Most people know the Department of Transportation also collects statistics for on-time arrivals, but delayed flights and cancelled flights are two different animals. Fortunately, a company called OAG compiles an annual report known as the Punctuality League, which combines delays and cancellations for over 54 million flights worldwide to arrive at an overall “on time” figure for each airline.
Customer satisfaction is by its nature a subjective judgment made by customers, but customer complaints are an objective way to measure it. The D.O.T. maintains records of the customer complaints it receives each month across a dozen topics, including customer service, flight problems and refunds. It’s a self-selecting data set as it only reflects people who took the time to file a complaint with the D.O.T., but it’s an apples-to-apples comparison across all our airlines.
While it wasn’t difficult to count the number of lounges for each of our airlines by city and airport (and determine the daily and annual cost to get into them), calculating the size of each airline’s route network was a bit more complicated since most airlines report their number of cities, routes and frequencies on a worldwide basis. But Oliver Wyman PlaneStats makes it easy to filter origin and destination (O&D) data from the BTS by region, which let us calculate the size of our airlines’ networks using domestic cities only.
Finally, there were the tough nuts to crack. Cabin comfort includes a ton of variables — seat size, onboard food, in-flight Wi-Fi, plus dozens of others that can be difficult to compress into one overall number for each flight, let alone an entire airline. However, one company does exactly that. The Routehappy public database provides an overall rating on cabin comfort for any specific flight. That meant it was up to us to decide which flights to search for. In the end, we chose to look up the average flight ratings for the 25 most traveled domestic routes on each of the 10 airlines, which we then distilled into one overall score per airline for ranking purposes.
And how could a site called The Points Guy do an airline study without including frequent flyer programs? Given the breadth and complexity of mileage programs, we could easily write an entire report about this one criterion alone (and we might just do that at some point). But to keep things simple, we used our existing TPG monthly point valuations along with our TPG elite status valuations to arrive at an overall score for each airline’s loyalty program.
A few technical notes: All data in this report is from calendar year 2016 unless noted and was normalized for the number of passengers traveling on each airline. We also restricted our data set to domestic numbers only, except when separating the domestic data from the worldwide data was impossible. Raw data totals for each criteria were converted to a simple 10 to 1 scale, with 10 at the top and 1 at the bottom. Since there are 10 airlines and 10 criteria, a theoretically perfect airline would score 100.
And now the moment we’ve all been waiting for… here are the 10 domestic airlines, from best to worst:
The top and bottom of these rankings aren’t terribly surprising. Alaska is known to run a very good airline and it shows, as the airline placed in the top 4 in more than half our criteria — airfare, on-time arrivals, lost baggage, involuntary bumps, customer satisfaction and its frequent flyer program. The only real knock against Alaska is the size of its route network, but that problem will be partially alleviated as Alaska’s merger with Virgin America — which also ranked well in our survey based on airfare, cabin comfort, lost baggage and involuntary bumps — is implemented over the next few years. If Alaska can retain its high quality and incorporate Virgin America’s strengths while expanding, it’s going to be a fierce competitor.
On the other end of our rankings, many folks don’t like Spirit, and it appears they have good reason to feel that way. The low-cost carrier finished dead last in four different criteria — on-time arrivals, customer satisfaction, cabin comfort and its frequent flyer program — and second to last in another (unsurprisingly, its baggage and change fees). The one thing Spirit’s got going for it? Cheap airfares. It led the pack in that area. Frontier suffered a similar fate, as it was second to last in many of the same areas in which Spirit finished last, but finished second from the top when it comes to airfare.
But what about some of these other results? United coming in second may surprise some people, especially since the carrier didn’t win outright in any particular area. However, it performed solidly in a number of our criteria, including route network, cabin comfort, baggage and change fees and lounges, and didn’t finish worse than middle of the pack on any measure (though it could use some improvement in customer satisfaction). Put it all together and United wins the silver this year.
The biggest shock to most people will likely be seeing Delta in seventh place. Delta has built a reputation over the last several years for running an excellent airline operation, and when we dive deeper into the numbers, it’s clear that reputation is warranted. Delta finished in the top 3 in almost all the performance criteria, including on-time arrivals, customer satisfaction, involuntary bumps, lounges and the overall size of the airline. So why did Delta fare so poorly in the final rankings? Simple — it’s expensive. Delta finished last in the airfare criterion, which meant lots of revenue for Delta, but less money in customers’ pockets. And Delta also charges significant fees as well, while some other airlines offset their higher fares with lower ancillary fees. Southwest is an excellent example of an airline with low baggage and change fees, although it has higher airfares than most people realize and no premium class seats, which hurt its cabin comfort score.
Finally, JetBlue hovered somewhere between the top and the middle of the pack, as it scored well on baggage and change fees, cabin comfort and customer satisfaction, but received low marks for on-time arrivals and involuntary bumps. American sits right in the middle of our rankings — it has the largest route network of any airline but got poor scores for customer satisfaction, lost baggage and involuntary bumps. And while Hawaiian was the most on-time airline in our study, it has the smallest route network, relatively high airfares, lounges in Hawaii only (partner lounges did not count for any airlines in our study) and a middling frequent flyer program, which relegated it to eighth place overall.
Those are the facts. But we also wanted to take a look at consumer survey results from market research company J.D. Power, whose 2016 J.D. Power North America Airline Satisfaction Study is highly regarded when it comes to studying the opinions of airline customers. The survey shows how customers perceived airlines in 2016, but how do those perceptions stand up to our objective look at the data? Here’s a comparative look:
When compared to our data, United is ranked much lower by customers and Southwest is regarded more highly, but the rest of the airlines are within a couple of ranks across both studies.
It’s Your Turn
But what if you don’t agree with us or with the average consumer? Perhaps you’re willing to pay more for better cabin comfort, or you’ll fly on a less convenient airline if its frequent flyer program is superior. Everyone has different priorities and we wanted to give TPG readers a chance to draw their own conclusions.
So we’ve put together a tool that lets you decide how much to weight each of our 10 criteria. Pick your own percentages across the categories and the tool will recalculate the results based on your choices and our data. For instance, if you don’t care about baggage and change fees, you can weight it less than the 10% we chose and emphasize something else with the extra percentage points. Or if frequent flyer programs are extremely important to you, push that criteria up as far as you’d like… but remember that the overall percentages must add up to 100%, so it’s up to you to pick and choose what you want prioritized and de-prioritized.
What It All Means
No airline does everything well. But some of them offer a better balance of price, convenience, customer satisfaction and perks like lounges and meaningful loyalty programs. And while price means a lot to most people, having the lowest fares does not make an airline great, as demonstrated by the fact that the low-cost/no-frills approach earned Spirit and Frontier the two bottom spots in our study.
It will be interesting to see if the legacy carriers — United, American and Delta — will benefit from their ongoing focus on improving premium cabins while squeezing more and more out of their economy passengers with smaller seats and stripped down “basic economy” fares. At the same time, can Southwest continue to thrive off its reputation as a small, low-fare airline when it’s actually become the largest domestic carrier by passengers with airfares similar to the Big 3? And successfully combining two different airline operations and cultures is extremely tricky — will Alaska and Virgin America avoid the pitfalls that have plagued airline mergers in the past?
Who knows what the future will bring, but our study shows just how the 10 biggest US airlines differ in terms of what they offer today. And now, with these tools and data, you can pinpoint exactly which airline really is best for you.
Additional reporting by Wallace Cotton. Visualization tool designed by Josh Bricel. Frequent flyer valuations provided by Nick Ewen and Peter Rothbart.
Featured image courtesy of Getty Images.
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