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Delta, Alaska and Southwest Airlines rule the American skies, while budget carriers Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant have some catching up to do, according to our third annual survey of the best and worst domestic airlines.

How well an airline operates its business is not esoteric AvGeek stuff. Whether an airline has a 6% delay rate or a 25% delay rate seems less abstract when you’re trying to make it home for Thanksgiving to see your 99-year-old grandmother. Scrimping and saving to take your family on that long-anticipated trip to Disney World? You’ll want to know whether the airfare, baggage fees and other ancillary charges are worth what you’re shelling out.  Snagging a good airfare can mean the difference between having enough left over for a nice hotel in the park or being forced to stay in a roadside motel on the fringes of Orlando. We factored all those elements — and more — into our rankings.

Delta was the big winner, with 92.7% of planes arriving on time, the largest network of lounges and cities served, and several other strong suits.

The big loser? Budget airline Frontier, which fell to last place thanks to its unenviable on-time record (nearly 1 out of 4 flights was delayed), lackluster cabin features, the habit of bumping paying passengers and — unsurprisingly — a high rate of customer complaints.

Airline by Airline

Here’s why we think each airline ranked where it did this year.

Delta

Though it didn’t top the timeliness or cancellation categories, it took a more-than-respectable silver medal. That, plus the fact that Delta was buoyed by its pervasive route and lounge networks and commendably low bump rate, was enough to put it over the top over last year’s No. 1, Alaska.

Alaska

Almost retaining its crown, the Seattle-based carrier had a healthy on-time rating and was above average in almost every regard except the size of its route and lounge networks. And when it came to its frequent-flyer program, Alaska Airlines the best in the US.

Southwest

The carrier suffered from its relatively bare-bones cabin features, and was below average for on-time arrivals and cancellations, but Southwest was the clear winner when it came to ancillary fees and has a loyal following that gave it a way higher customer-satisfaction rating than anyone else.

United

Chicago-based United was in the middle of the pack for timeliness (hello, Windy City weather), but excelled in its array of lounges and — believe it or not — in keeping down its number of involuntary bumps last year.

Hawaiian

There’s no doubt about it: Hawaiian was the best airline for you getting you to your destination on time, helped no doubt by the islands’ excellent climate. The problem was that the airline doesn’t have a lot of those destinations to get you to, at least compared to its bigger rivals. Its small route network, exorbitant fees and all but nonexistent lounges kept Hawaiian from breaking into the top three, though it still did much better than last year.

American

A large number of destination airports and lounges and a low bump rate and high frequent-flyer rating weren’t enough to make up for American’s lackluster on-time and cancellation scores, or its low customer-satisfaction rating. Overall, American Airlines came in 6th.

JetBlue

All in all, JetBlue has the most comfortable coach cabins in the sky, and rarely loses bags or bumps passengers, but the New York-based carrier’s high rate of delayed and canceled flights prevented it from doing as well in our rankings as it could have.

Allegiant

It was Allegiant’s first showing in our rankings, but it didn’t get much of a honeymoon period, losing big points for its lack of cabin features and lounges and high number of delayed flights and customer complaints. Allegiant also came in dead last in our reckoning of the best value in loyalty programs.

Spirit

Another budget airline bringing up the rear, Spirit offered a limited number of destinations, little in the way of cabin comforts and the second-worst frequent-flyer program. It was also more likely to bump people on a flight than anyone but Frontier. But there’s room for hope: It was the best airline at making sure you were reunited with your checked bags, and was a good value for what you paid — as long as you weren’t expecting all the bells and whistles.

Frontier

Though it represented the best value, Frontier’s passengers are giving up cabin comforts and — most notably — on-time flights. It also bumped more passengers than any other airlines, on average. Not surprisingly, Frontier Airlines had the highest rate of complaints per passenger.

Getting You There on Time

The whole point of an airline is taking you from Point A to Point B, so airline performance represents the biggest chunk of our score — more than a quarter of it.

Poring over data from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), we looked at the percentage of flight delays and cancellations and the number of cities an airline serves. We also factored in how likely passengers were to suffer “involuntary denied boardings,” industry-speak for getting bumped off a flight.

Hawaiian Airlines was the undisputed leader for on-time flights, with only 6.4% of flights delayed for 30 or fewer minutes. That compares to an average of 15.6% for all 10 airlines overall and 24.6% for the category loser, Frontier.

What we found:

  • Hawaiian had the fewest delayed flights or cancellations, at 6.4% and 0.3%, respectively.
  • Frontier had the most delays — 24.6% of flights, while JetBlue had the most outright canceled flights — 2.2% of the total scheduled.
  • Delta bumped only 32 passengers out of more than 136 million Delta flyers.
  • Frontier, the worst offender, bumped 1,365 passengers of their 20 million fliers. In other words, those who flew Frontier were over 300 times more likely to be denied boarding than those who flew Delta.
  • Although Hawaiian was the best at keeping to its schedule, it has the smallest route network of the airlines we surveyed — a mere 18 domestic cities, not including regional airports. It’s also worth noting that Hawaiian, based in a state blessed with balmy weather, has a built-in advantage over United, whose biggest hub is in Chicago, which experiences weather extremes. Delta, for its part, flies to 150 destinations in the US.

Affordability

An airline’s not going to get you to your sunny Florida vacation if it charges so much you can’t afford to fly it. So another big factor in our final score was pricing.

Consulting the airlines’ financials, their websites, DOT data and the monthly TPG valuations, we looked at the average value for the customer and those hefty extra airline fees. We also factored in the points valuations and the value of elite status perks.

It was a mixed bag with no clear winner or loser in the affordability categories.

  • Spirit had the best ratio of fare cost per mile flown for paying passengers. On average, Spirit passengers only paid about $1 per mile flown in base fare for every $2.60 that Delta flyers paid. If you can avoid the plethora of fees, Spirit can be a bargain.
  • Delta’s been trying to reposition itself as a premium airline, and that was reflected in the affordability of its base fares. The money for more lounges, seatback screens and loyalty perks has to come from somewhere.
  • You can’t beat free. Southwest’s bill of “zero” for two checked bags and free flight changes won it the top spot for ancillary fees.
  • Hawaiian charges a middle-of-the-road $30 for a checked bag but a whopping $300 for flight changes, making it the worst value for fees.
  • Alaska was top dog for its loyalty program because it offered the best value — 1.84 cents per mile — and good perks for all three tiers of membership, while Allegiant wound up in last place with no loyalty program.

Comfort 

The third portion of our ranking deals with comfort and, in this category, airlines have a lot of control.  It makes all the difference to passengers whether you stroll into an out-of-town business meeting well-rested and well-fed, or stagger in after a sleepless flight with no food.

Combing through the airlines’ websites and publicly available fleet data, we looked at average seat pitch and width in economy class; Wi-Fi availability; whether there were seatback screens for inflight entertainment (IFE) and outlets at seats, and the average age of the domestic fleet. We also looked at how many regular lounges each airline had in the U.S. versus how many premium lounges, and the cost of memberships and day passes.

With its widely lauded free, ubiquitous and excellent Fly-Fi Wi-Fi, ever-present seatback screens, generous seat pitch and relatively young fleet, JetBlue has the most comfortable cabins over the U.S. Not surprisingly, all the budget airlines — Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit and even Southwest — tied for last with bare-bones onboard offerings.

  • Delta has the oldest fleet, with an average age of nearly 16 years, while Frontier, which went through a recent modernization campaign and now consists solely of Airbus A319s, A320s and A321s, is a relative toddler at 4 years. That indicates fresher cabin features, in general.
  • JetBlue and Southwest tied for the most generous seat pitch in coach, at 32.9 inches on average, while Spirit’s 28-inch average seat pitch is the stingiest.
  • Hawaiian and Frontier have the widest seats on average, 18 inches. Alaska has the narrowest seats, 17 inches.
  • Alaska is the only airline that can boast it has power outlets at every seat.
  • JetBlue deserves its reputation for great connectivity with solid, free Wi-Fi throughout its fleet.
  • With its sheer number of lounges — 52 lounges in 34 cities — Delta was the clear winner for its lounge network, though its membership fee was among the highest.
  • JetBlue, Frontier, Southwest, Spirit and Allegiant don’t maintain lounges at all.

Customer Satisfaction

Lost baggage and bad service are among the least likely things you’ll deal with on a flight, but they’re probably the most memorable. When these things do happen, they’re a big deal, so there was no question that we’d factor them into our rankings.

To reflect customer satisfaction, we looked at the number of passenger complaints against each airline filed with the DOT. We also looked at the number of reports of lost luggage, also available from the federal government.

Southwest has a reputation for great service and loyal customers, and it showed. Frontier, on the other hand, racked up nearly the same number of complaints as airlines that flew 10 times as many people. If you check bags, you have the most reason to worry if flying American, while Spirit flyers can probably rest easy.

  • Southwest had only 602 complaints despite flying more domestic passengers than any other airline — over 160 million passengers in the period we surveyed.
  • Frontier had more complaints than Southwest even though it flew fewer than one-eighth as many people — 778 complaints from a little over 19 million passengers.
  • Spirit lost only 1.7 bags per 1,000 passengers, while American misplaced more than twice that, or 3.8 bags per 1,000 passengers.

Methodology

We weighted each factor separately before combining all our figures for an overall score, then ranked the airlines from 1 to 10. The full list of factors and weighting is as follows:

    • Timeliness (15%): Percentage of arrivals and departures that were delayed for the period we examined from late 2017 to late 2018
    • Cabin Features (15%): Wi-Fi availability, free Wi-Fi and free messaging, seatback IFE, average domestic economy seat pitch and width, power outlets at seats and average age of the domestic fleet
    • Cancellations (10%): Percentage of canceled flights
    • Route Network (10%): Cities served in the US
    • Ticket Value (10%): How much airlines made from customers compared to how many miles they flew them
    • Fees (10%): How much airlines charged for extra checked bags and flight changes
    • Frequent Flyer Program (10%): Average points valuations and quality of perks for loyalty programs
    • Customer Satisfaction (10%): Number of complaints filed with the DOT
    • Lost Baggage (5%): Number of reports of misplaced luggage
    • Lounges (3%): Total number of lounges, number of premium lounges, number of destinations with lounges, plus lounge membership fees and day fees
    • Bumps (2%): Percentage of passengers unwillingly denied boarding

All illustrations by Selman Hosgor. 

Wallace Cotton, Nick Ewen and Alyssa Haak contributed to this story.

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