Best US airlines of 2020: Who’s doing it right in the COVID era
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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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- April 5 (morning): Delta extends Medallion status and announces that all Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) earned in 2020 will roll over into 2021, giving a jump start on next year’s qualification.
- April 5 (afternoon): United extends Premier elite status and announces a bonus for earning Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) through credit card spending – though details on the latter didn’t come for a couple of weeks.
- April 7: Alaska extends MVP elite status
- April 13: American extends AAdvantage elite status and announces offer to earn Million Miler status via credit card spending.
- April 16: Southwest extends Rapid Rewards elite status through Dec. 31, 2021, (including Companion Pass validity, though only through June 30, 2021).
- May 2: Hawaiian extends elite status and lowers qualification requirements for 2020.
- May 14: JetBlue extends Mosaic elite status and allows current elites to gift status to a friend or family member.was the last (roughly six weeks later). We’ve also seen some interesting new promotions launch — such as Alaska offering ways to earn bonus elite-qualifying miles and American providing credit toward Million Miler status through credit card spending.
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.
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.
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%)
|Onboard||In-flight service changes (40%)
Capacity controls (50%)
Mask requirements (10%)
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.
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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