Best US airlines of 2020: Who’s doing it right in the COVID era

Jul 27, 2020

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The travel industry has been thrown into turmoil by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and perhaps no segment has been impacted as significantly as airlines. From thousands of flight cancellations to heavy financial losses and the threats of furloughs and layoffs, the last few months have been challenging for these companies as they attempt to weather the storm — and hope for clear skies in the not-too-distant future.

In a “normal” year, travelers might judge airlines based on their in-flight service offerings or on-time performance.

2020 is not a normal year.

As a result, TPG’s annual report on the best airlines in the U.S. will take a different format this year. Instead of using the standard metrics we’ve used in the past, we’re focusing entirely on how each of the 10 largest carriers in the country have responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Be it adjusting elite status programs or implementing new cleaning procedures or issuing refunds, the airlines have had their hands full.

But which U.S. airline came out on top, and which earned the unenviable spot in last place?

Well, based on our exclusive analysis, Delta Air Lines came out as the best in this new COVID-19 age, while discount carrier Spirit Airlines was at the very bottom of our rankings.

Read on for more information.

Best US airlines of 2020

  1. Delta Air Lines
  2. Alaska Airlines
  3. JetBlue Airways
  4. American Airlines
  5. Southwest Airlines
  6. United Airlines
  7. Hawaiian Airlines
  8. Allegiant Air
  9. Frontier Airlines
  10. Spirit Airlines

In This Post

Overall rankings

Let’s begin with the overall scores for the 10 airlines (out of a total possible score of 100) across the five categories we considered (view our full methodology below).

Rank Airline Score
1
Delta Air Lines
86.9 /100
Details

Score Breakdown

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Key takeaways

Delta Air Lines earns top marks for its consistent, rigorous cleaning procedures and commitment to reduced capacity on its flights through at least Sept. 30, 2020. It was the first U.S. airline to significantly change boarding procedures in light of the pandemic and was also first to announce elite status extensions, including new Choice Benefits for its most loyal travelers. While we haven’t seen notable promotions through its SkyMiles program, Delta has kept customer safety and well-being top of mind, and for this it takes the top spot.
2
Alaska Airlines
82.6 /100
Details

Score Breakdown

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Key takeaways

Alaska Airlines posts top scores in treating loyal travelers right, as it announced early elite status extensions (including new upgrade certificates) and has also launched multiple promotions to ensure continued engagement with customers. The Seattle-based carrier was also among the quickest to issue refunds for canceled flights and will continue to restrict capacity by blocking middle seats through at least Sept. 30, 2020. Unfortunately, Saver fares — Alaska’s version of basic economy — still have more restrictions than comparable tickets on other carriers, but overall, Alaska has taken major steps to support customers.
3
JetBlue
82.4 /100
Details

Score Breakdown

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Key takeaways

JetBlue Airways excels with its onboard scores, as it continues to block middle seats through Sept. 8, 2020 and has adjusted in-flight service procedures to ensure customer safety. Despite being the last of these airlines to extend elite status for loyal travelers, it allowed those members to gift status to a friend or family member — and we’ve seen a handful of other promotions from TrueBlue. Most flight credits have been extended for two years, and even though refund processing time wasn’t great, the carrier was offering 20% in extra value for accepting a credit instead of a refund.
4
American Airlines
79.5 /100
Details

Score Breakdown

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Key takeaways

American Airlines has received generally high marks for customer ticketing procedures, waiving change and cancellation fees on affected and new tickets — including basic economy flights and award tickets. However, the carrier has been criticized for shifting away from blocking middle seats and also hasn’t formally adjusted its boarding process, but it is taking steps to minimize the spread of COVID-19. American has offered detailed descriptions of how it has adjusted in-flight service, and it also showed creativity in launching a promotion to earn Million Miler status through credit card spending, earning it high scores for loyalty.
5
Southwest
79.0 /100
Details

Score Breakdown

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Key takeaways

Southwest Airlines’ pre-existing change and cancellation policies — no fees on any ticket — have always been generous, but by extending travel funds and offering conversions to points, it took home high marks in the ticketing department. Southwest also continues to restrict capacity on flights through at least Sept. 30, 2020, and received the fewest complaints from passengers (as reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation). One area of criticism involved the carrier’s venerable Companion Pass, which has only been extended through June 30, 2021, but performance in other areas propelled Southwest to a solid overall score.
6
United Airlines
78.9 /100
Details

Score Breakdown

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Key takeaways

United Airlines earns high scores for cleaning procedures, partnering with both Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic to ensure its approach (like electrostatic spraying before every flight) reduces the risk of virus transmission as much as possible. It’s even temporarily closed down check-in kiosks and significantly modified boarding procedures, but United falls short in two major areas. First, it rated poorly for refunds, implementing (and then back-tracking on) a schedule change policy at odds with DOT requirements. It also made two notable, negative changes to its MileagePlus loyalty program — changing earning rates and removing award charts for partner airlines — at the height of the pandemic, resulting in a fall to the sixth spot.
7
Hawaiian Airlines
70.0 /100
Details

Score Breakdown

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Key takeaways

Hawaiian Airlines has implemented a number of important procedures to minimize the spread of COVID-19, including modified boarding/deplaning and blocked middle seats. It also uses a number of enhanced cleaning procedures, including thorough disinfecting after every transpacific flight. However, electrostatic spraying doesn’t happen before every Hawaiian departure. Instead, it is limited to once-nightly for intra-island flights. In addition, Hawaiian suffers from ticketing issues, including the implementation (and then pull-back) of a punitive schedule change policy that drew a rebuke from the DOT. These slot Hawaiian into seventh place.
8
Allegiant
47.2 /100
Details

Score Breakdown

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Key takeaways

Allegiant Air takes the eight spot, largely due to superior ticketing policies from its low-cost-carrier rivals: It waived change and cancellation fees and gave vouchers from canceled reservations a two-year period of validity. It even had a rate of DOT complaints that was lower than both JetBlue and United. While it isn’t formally restricting capacity on flights (instead “encouraging” passengers not to book middle seats), Allegiant is allowing travelers to opt-in for notifications when a flight is mostly full. However, the low-cost carrier suffers mightily from not having a true loyalty program, and it hasn’t formally adjusted its boarding procedures in light of the pandemic.
9
Frontier Airlines
44.7 /100
Details

Score Breakdown

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Key takeaways

Frontier Airlines has had many strong responses to the coronavirus pandemic, including temperature checks for all passengers at the gate, a modified boarding process (back-to-front) and extended time between flights for more thorough cleaning. Unfortunately, it hasn’t taken any steps to significantly reduce capacity on flights — aside from encouraging paying for an extra seat (which was then reversed after an uproar). In addition, Frontier imposed relatively strict policies to retain the value of canceled tickets booked on or before April 15, requiring rebooking within 90 days. Finally, the carrier has made no announcements related to its Frontier Miles program, earning it a zero in supporting loyal customers.
10
Spirit Airlines
42.7 /100
Details

Score Breakdown

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Key takeaways

Spirit Airlines has taken some notable steps to protect passengers during the pandemic, especially related to ticketing. In addition to waived change and cancellation fees, it was offering extra value on vouchers and even allowing passengers to cancel a flight via text message. Unfortunately, the carrier is not capping capacity on its flights, and it’s charging an extra $3 for face coverings if you don’t have one (although it is donating the proceeds to charity). Finally, aside from extending mileage expiration — through just Sept. 1, 2020 — we haven’t seen any other announcements related to the FREE SPIRIT loyalty program. These notable drawbacks drop Spirit to the bottom of the pack.

You can scroll to the end of this post for complete details on the methodology we used, but let’s dive deeper into each category.

Best airlines for ticketing

Ever since the coronavirus exploded in the U.S. in mid-March, airlines have implemented various policies related to customer tickets — covering existing flights booked pre-pandemic as well as new reservations. There has also been significant variation in issuing refunds for canceled flights. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) had to issue stern warnings in order to compel certain carriers to comply with its published policies — most notably United and Hawaiian, both of which implemented (and then walked back) punitive schedule-change policies in an effort to avoid giving refunds.

In addition to these three elements, we also considered complaints filed with the DOT in April 2020 (the most recently available data at the time of publication). The vast majority of these — nearly 95% — related to refunds, and we evaluated how many complaints customers submitted against each airline (per 100,000 passengers enplaned).

Leading the way in this category was Southwest, as its flexible travel policies — no change or cancellation fees on any ticket, even outside a pandemic — are tailor-made for these uncertain times. Southwest also gets credit for creativity here, as passengers are being allowed to convert existing (or new) travel funds into Rapid Rewards points — though it’s also extended the validity of those funds through Sept. 7, 2022. Finally, the carrier was least likely to be the subject of complaints — just 107 per 100,000 passengers.

Stuck with a voucher or travel credit due to a canceled trip? In the past, using these would invoke a host of restrictions, but many airlines have loosened the reins in light of the pandemic. American, for example, will allow expiring tickets to be used for new flights through Dec. 31, 2021, while credits on Hawaiian Airlines are valid for at least two years. United used a similar two-year approach for electronic travel certificates if you voluntarily canceled a ticket affected by the pandemic.

Even low-cost Allegiant was offering vouchers valid for up to two years from the initial reservation.

RELATED: Southwest vs Allegiant: What it’s like to fly a low-cost airline during a pandemic

Some carriers even added bonuses when you accept a travel credit rather than a refund — TPG staffers found that American and JetBlue, for example, were offering 20% of additional value in an effort to maintain positive cash flow.

Delta makes a strong showing here as well, permitting many eCredits to be applied to new tickets through Sept. 30, 2022 — over two years from now. In fact, if you bought your Delta ticket before April 17, 2020, and had planned to travel between March and September of 2020, Delta will even waive the fare difference when you rebook to the same destination before Sept. 30.

Contrast that flexibility with Frontier Airlines and its comparatively strict policy for changing existing tickets; if you cancel a flight, the normal cancellation fee is waived, but you’ll only retain the value of your ticket by rebooking within 90 days of canceling. In addition, the carrier was most affected by DOT complaints, tallying 2,129 per 100,000 passengers (or roughly 20 times that of Southwest).

READ MORE: Airline coronavirus change and cancellation policies: A complete list of major carriers

Best airlines for cleaning

As a result of the pandemic, airlines have been forced to implement notable changes to their cleaning procedures to minimize the risk of travelers contracting COVID-19 onboard. Different carriers are using various types of cleaning and a variety of frequencies — and some have even started handing out cleaning supplies for passengers to use.

Here, it’s worth pointing out that lower-scoring airlines aren’t automatically riskier than others. It simply means that the published measures being taken aren’t as significant as higher-scoring ones.

And it’s hard to compete with Delta, the carrier that takes the top spot here, with a perfect score of 20 out of 20. The list of measures being taken by the Atlanta-based airline is impressive: electrostatic spraying with disinfectant before every flight, along with dedicated attention to high-touch areas like overhead bin handles and armrests. Delta has even committed to holding flights if the cabin is deemed not clean enough prior to boarding.

READ MORE: We got an inside look at how Delta is cleaning planes between every flight

Other airlines are taking similar steps to ensure clean, disinfected cabins. However, the frequency and potency of these methods aren’t as clear. Allegiant, for example, simply commits to a “regular schedule of standard and deep-clean procedures” onboard, while JetBlue conducts deep-cleaning once per day — including electrostatic spraying over the interior of the aircraft.

American limits this to once every seven days but purports to use a product that “provides continued, seven-day protection against against bacteria, mold and viruses” — including the strain that causes COVID-19.

Clearly cognizant of public opinion, some airlines have begun working with external experts in pursuit of cleanliness. United’s CleanPlus initiative is a partnership with Clorox, while the Cleveland Clinic is advising the carrier on it’s enhanced cleaning and disinfecting procedures.

Meanwhile, Spirit’s website indicates that electrostatic cleaning devices are only being implemented in “high-traffic airports” — with no mention of use onboard. But even here, Spirit has enacted cleaning treatments meant to help with safety during the pandemic. It has rolled out “fogging” treatments to disinfect the interiors of its fleet, including one with an “antimicrobial product” that the airline says kills bacteria and viruses on contact for up to 30 days.

One area where the 10 carriers don’t differ? The use of HEPA filters, which are utilized across their respective fleets.

Best airlines on the ground

For passengers, the experience of traveling during the coronavirus pandemic starts on the ground, with significant modifications to check-in and boarding processes as well as lounge access. Regardless of the airline you select, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill process.

There’s a lot of overlap with these procedures for carriers — including plexiglass shields at check-in counters and gates, along with frequent sanitization of kiosks and other touch points. Virtually all airlines are encouraging touch-free transit by promoting their respective apps and mobile boarding passes, with United even shutting down its check-in kiosks temporarily. Southwest is going as far as allowing passengers to hold up their identification rather than passing them to an agent for verification.

RELATED: 6 ways to pay without touching anything

However, considering the entire experience, Delta again comes out on top. The carrier’s use of electrostatic spraying extends to Delta’s gate areas and jet bridges as well, helping create a sanitized space throughout a large portion of the pre- and post-flight process. In addition, boarding has been back-to-front since April 10 (Delta was the first airline to go in this direction) — with no more than 10 customers at a time.

Many others have implemented similar boarding updates, including Frontier (back-to-front), Hawaiian (by row), JetBlue (by row, back-to-front), Southwest (10 at a time) and United (fewer customers and back-to-front by row).

This stands in sharp contrast to airlines that haven’t adjusted the boarding process — among them American and Allegiant — while Spirit is encouraging social distancing during check-in and at the gate, but it hasn’t officially changed the boarding process other than asking passengers to “scan their own boarding passes” and welcoming them to “board at the end of the boarding process if they wish.”

From a lounge perspective, most of the six airlines in the U.S. that offer them have at least some locations open (Hawaiian is the sole holdout), though don’t expect the usual experience — think limited capacity, disposable glassware and pre-packaged snacks.

READ MORE: Which U.S. airlines are blocking middle seats and requiring masks?

Best airlines onboard

The onboard experience of flying has also undergone massive changes, with modifications to service, capacity controls and mask requirements. All of the carriers are now mandating masks for passengers, with Delta going as far as requiring a virtual consultation with a medical professional before being granted a mask exception. It’s also worth noting that most airlines — including Alaska, Southwest and United — are making masks available to those who don’t have one.

In the true spirit of a low-cost-carrier, Spirit will charge you $3 for a mask (though it is donating the proceeds of these sales to charity through Dec. 31, 2020).

JetBlue takes the spot as the top-scoring airline for the onboard experience, followed closely by Delta. These two airlines are taking care to limit passenger and flight attendant interactions and have also reconfirmed their commitment to reduced capacity. Delta continues to restrict loads through Sept. 30 (50% in first class, 60% in economy), while JetBlue will block middle seats on larger aircraft and aisle seats on smaller ones through at least Sept. 8.

Other airlines — namely American and United — have shifted in the other direction in recent weeks, with American even coming under fire from some health professionals.

Alaska, Hawaiian and Southwest also get high marks for keeping flights from filling up, with specific policies aimed at limiting capacity.

Not so on the low-cost carriers, unfortunately. Allegiant at least allows passengers to opt in for notifications that their flight will exceed 65% capacity, but Spirit and Frontier provide no published rules that will limit passengers on their flights.

READ MORE: In-flight service is resuming — here’s what food and drinks you can expect on your next flight

Best airlines for loyalty

The other side of the pandemic will see an eventual return to the skies. U.S. airlines need to engender loyalty during the tough times to ensure they’re well-positioned in the good times, so how well are they supporting their loyal flyers right now? Whether it’s extending the validity of elite status, adjusting qualification criteria or launching new offers to drive business, most carriers are taking notable steps related to their respective frequent flyer programs.

Here’s how the months of April and May went related to elite status announcements and interesting promotions:

Delta deserves major credit here for being the first major carrier to announce status extensions and including a new set of Choice Benefits, although we haven’t seen any notable promotions come out of the SkyMiles program. That’s in sharp contrast to Alaska Airlines, which launched (and then extended) a 50% bonus on elite-qualifying miles for flights and the ability to earn EQMs through credit card spending — and even extended status for those participating in the carrier’s status challenge program.

READ MORE: Complete guide to airline elite status during the coronavirus outbreak

However, United takes the cake (and a two-point penalty) for making two negative adjustments to the MileagePlus program at the height of the pandemic. First, it devalued the rate at which you’d earn Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) when flying on partner airlines. Then, it removed its published award chart for Star Alliance partners — and raised prices by up to 10% the very next day. It’s nice that existing Premier elite travelers have it locked in through early 2022, but these two changes were not a welcome sight for United loyalists.

On the low-cost-carrier side of things, Spirit announced that it was extending mileage expiration, but Frontier hasn’t published any adjustments to its loyalty program, while Allegiant’s is limited to credit cardholders. As a result, these three carriers all scored much lower than their counterparts in this category.

RELATED: Why airlines and hotels should tread lightly when changing loyalty programs

Methodology

As noted at the outset, we looked at five categories in arriving at the final scores:

  • Ticketing: How the airlines handled changes, cancellations and refunds
  • Cleaning: What steps airlines are taking to ensure cleanliness
  • On the ground: How airlines have adjusted the ground experience
  • Onboard: How airlines have adjusted the in-flight experience
  • Loyalty: How airlines have treated their loyal members

Here’s a table that breaks down the specific details we evaluated and how these were rated:

Category Criteria and weighting
Ticketing Policy for existing tickets (30%)
Policy for new tickets (30%)
Ease of obtaining refunds (30%)
U.S. Department of Transportation complaints (10%)
Cleaning Frequency of cleaning (50%)
Type of cleaning (50%)
On the ground Check-in procedures (40%)
Boarding procedures (40%)
Lounges (20%)
Onboard In-flight service changes (40%)
Capacity controls (50%)
Mask requirements (10%)
Loyalty* Extensions (33.3%)
Qualification requirements (33.3%)
Promotions and offers (33.3%)

*NOTE: Loyalty also included a penalty for negative changes during the pandemic.

TPG’s editorial team carefully reviewed published policies, as well as real-time reports, to score each airline across these elements, ultimately arriving at a total score out of 20 for each of the five broad categories. As a result, each category contributed 20% to the overall scores detailed above.

It’s worth noting that the scores above don’t guarantee that you’ll have a flawless experience with Delta during the pandemic, nor does it definitively prove that you’ll have a poor one with Spirit. Instead, this analysis is meant to provide one method for numerically identifying how well the U.S. airlines have done in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

READ MORE: What’s it like to fly during a pandemic? We compared 4 different airlines

Final thoughts

The world of air travel today is notably different than 2019, when we last published our report on the best airlines in the U.S. And sadly, with ongoing spread in dozens of states, there’s no telling when we’ll return to normal — though some estimates peg it in years rather than months.

One thing’s for sure, however: All carriers around the world have had to react to this global pandemic, and we almost certainly haven’t seen the end of these changes.

TPG’s exclusive analysis shows that some have handled the last few months better than others, with Delta, Alaska and JetBlue earning the top three spots and Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit bringing up the rear (in that order).

That said, each airline is taking significant steps to continue operating while minimizing the spread of COVID-19, so if you plan to take to the skies this summer or fall, do your research so you know what to expect.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to better clarify Spirit’s cleaning and loyalty updates.

Featured image by Orli Friedman/The Points Guy

Additional reporting by Benji Stawski, Stella Shon, Brian Kim and Zach Griff

Design and development work by Jill Bressler, Orli Friedman and Amanda Donnelly-Rankin

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