When it comes to what travelers want in an airline, we can agree on a few, fundamental things. We want it to get us where we want to go. We want to get there on time. Unlikely as it may be that we actually do, we still keep hoping. Once we finally get to our destination, we want our bags to be waiting for us, and not on their way to the other side of the planet in the belly of another carrier’s plane. Oh, and we would like to get to our destination alive and in one piece, if that is not too much to ask. I think we can all agree on that.
Aside from these fundamental issues, there is little agreement on what an airline ‘should’ be. For different kinds of travelers, different factors rise to the front. While everyone loves a good deal, a seasoned business traveler has a different idea of a “cheap ticket” than a college student (me) heading to Florida for spring break; as a result, it is somewhat difficult to class low fare or ultra-low fare carriers against more traditional airlines.
Much of the air traffic in the US goes through regional airlines, which inherently have a smaller list of destinations, so it may not be fair to compare them to an international carrier.
Comfort, convenience, cost, choice of destinations, friendliness of staff, and an airline’s management practices went into compiling this far-from-authoritative list of the best and worst airlines flying in the U.S. Rankings from industry experts and consumer surveys went into compiling this list, along with some of my personal experiences flying the friendly-ish skies.
Part of the wide-ranging Virgin Group of companies, Virgin Airlines was founded by billionaire adventurer Richard Branson. While the founder is famous for his own record-breaking feats of aviation, Branson’s companies span the world of travel, including not only the airline, but Virgin Voyages, a cruise line expected to set sail in 2020, and Virgin Hotels, which recently acquired the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas and plans to reopen it in 2019. Most famously, perhaps, Branson helms Virgin Galactic, a space-tourism agency.
It may be no surprise then, that the Virgin Airlines lounge at London’s Heathrow airport looks like a 1960s futurist fever dream in the best, most mood-lit way possible.
Virgin operates flights to and from the U.K. and major U.S. cities. A 2017 review by The Points Guy commended the airline’s economy class for its comfort on a transatlantic flight, even if it was a bit more expensive than a budget carrier.
Leg room and seat size are the primary perks of flying Virgin Airlines, even in economy.
Your chances to fly with Virgin are dwindling, however. Alaska Airlines, which appears further down our list, has acquired Virgin and plans to begin the merger of their assets this year.
Our Neighbor to the North will at least keep its reputation for being nice, saying sorry excessively, and having an attractive prime minister.
Poor Air Canada receives the lowest score of all traditional airlines flying in North America, according to J.D. Power. The firm gave it a score of 709, placing it in the category of "the rest" as opposed to "the best." Even the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) cast doubt on the methodology of a completely contradictory online poll that showed Air Canada ranking as the top North American airline. For comparison, the same poll showed that Air Canada Rouge, the budget carrier subsidiary of the Canadian national airline, was ranked ninety-ninth out of a hundred in North American carriers. Unsurprisingly, the CBC came down cautiously in favor of the J. D. Power assessment.
Frequent delays were cited as the main complaint against Air Canada. On an online airline review forum, posters consistently wrote about hours-long delays and logistical nightmares during their travels with Air Canada.
The CBC interviewed one traveler who had been stranded at the Toronto airport for twelve hours while on his way to Florida. Neil Crone described Air Canada as like any other airline—crowded, slow, and with terrible food—and said its high rating was perhaps not saying much.
SkyWest Airlines appears on this list as the first of those smaller airlines whose ranking here is made or broken by the qualities of the larger carriers with whom they partner. Based out of St. George, Utah, SkyWest boasts on its official website of operating over 2,000 flights daily and carrying millions of passengers monthly to 254 destinations across the North American continent. You can fly from coast to coast on a plane operated by SkyWest, even if you have multiple connections through different airlines.
SkyWest flies in partnership with Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines. American, Delta, and United are known as “The Big Three” of U.S. airlines because of their scope or as “legacy carriers” because of their long histories. SkyWest is one of the smaller partner airlines that helps them operate their massive route networks. Partner airlines often fly to small, regional airports that cannot accommodate large planes or that do not attract enough traffic to merit sending in the jumbo jets.
But big does not always equal better. As we will see, two of Skywest’s major-carrier partners receive poor rankings according to many consumer-survey indices. However, two of its partners are among the best-rated airlines in the United States, which buoys up the ranking of SkyWest on this list.
Yet again, this regional partner is brought down by the larger airlines it serves. Republic Airlines operates out of Indianapolis, Houston, Miami, and ten other crew bases. Its major-carrier partners are United, American, and Delta. In partnership with these carriers, Republic flies mostly to cities in the Midwest and along the East Coast.
Like other regional partners, Republic Airlines operates a fleet of small jets. Whereas other subsidiary or partner carriers operate mostly with the Embraer 145, Republic proudly displays its fleet of newer Embraer 170 and Embraer 175 aircraft. These newer planes are also lighter, which provide better fuel economy and help keep operating costs low. Presumably, hopefully, these savings are passed on to passengers.
As is the case with all partner airlines, passengers book flights on Republic without knowing it, going through the purchase process with American, Delta, or United, whose liveries Republic’s aircraft wear.
Serving as part of the networks of the “Big Three” American airlines suggests a high level of trust in the industry for Republic Airlines. However, two of the “Big Three” are among the least popular airlines in the United States. As two-thirds of Republic’s clients are so unpopular, the smaller carrier is dragged down in this list’s ratings by those associations.
While it might be tempting to call Cape Air a ‘boutique’ airline because of its limited scope and the classy summertime destinations it services, the small carrier is not to be underestimated. Operating mostly propeller planes, Cape Air flies to thirty-five destinations. Full disclosure: as a Bostonian, I have a bias for anything that focuses on New England, as Cape Air does.
The ‘cape’ in the name refers to Cape Cod. From its hub at Logan Airport in Boston, “The Hub” of New England, Cape Air services Nantucket, Hyannis, Provincetown, Martha’s Vineyard, and New Bedford. Anyone who has sat in traffic going across the bridge onto Cape Cod, or waited endlessly for a ferry, may well consider splurging for a ticket to their vacation destination.
Cape Air also runs flights to Vermont and New Hampshire, making it perfect for planning ski getaways. Nature-lovers will be happy to know there are several destinations in Montana, directly out of New England. With several destinations in Maine and Upstate New York, it is also possible to take in your fill of small-town charm or go to visit grandma without having to drive the MassPike (that’s Interstate 90 for all of you who don’t speak Bostonese).
And if you hate the cold and snow and hate sitting on the MassPike in the cold and snow, Cape Air also flies to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Have you ever heard of this airline? I hadn’t before researching this article. With a name like ‘Sun Country’ and a peppy, sun-themed logo that avoids becoming cutesy, my first impressions were good. The website is also pleasantly designed and features a very useful interactive route map.
That is where I discovered why I had never heard of the airline. Sun Country has one hub, at the Minneapolis-St.Paul airport. While I hear Minnesota is a lovely place, I have not yet had a chance to travel there. As all of Sun Country’s flights originate or terminate in the Twin Cities, its customer base is limited to Minnesotans, people visiting the state, or people willing to take a layover on their way between the coasts.
The name ‘Sun Country’ comes from the fact that, along with the major coastal US cities, the carrier also flies to destinations in the Caribbean and along the Mexican Riviera.
It is that extremely limited route map that makes Sun Country one of the worst airlines in America, though it seems to be one of the best in the Midwest or Minnesota.
On the industry-focused website Live and Let’s Fly, a traveler used the first class and had some complaints about the seats and pillows in Sun Country’s first class cabin. However, he appreciated the cheese plate and Mediterranean experience aboard “‘the hometown airline’ of Minneapolis.”
Because of its relatively small size, Hawaiian Airlines does not appear in rankings by J.D. Power and the American Consumer Survey Index (ACSI). It does, however, appear in the top nine U.S. airlines, as compiled by The Points Guy and reported by Forbes magazine. Hawaiian Airlines, according to The Points Guy, ranks ninth of nine, because Honolulu is the origin or destination for almost all of its flights, whether to or from the islands or within them. This may be the only time in history that a focus on Hawaiian vacations was used as a criticism.
The long-haul flights, even when just between islands in the Hawaiian chain, means that Hawaiian Airlines flies as much as a major carrier, even if its destination list is more limited. Once again, only flying to and from Hawaii does not count as a bad mark in my book.
As part of its social responsibility statement, Hawaiian Airlines affirms a commitment to preserving and promoting Native Hawaiian culture. Upholding this statement, in the last few months, the airline has begun conducting its flights between islands in ‘olelo Hawai’i (the Hawaiian language). The company plans to expand the use of ‘olelo Hawai’I to flights arriving from the mainland.
Again, this list features a smaller partner airline whose low ranking comes through no real fault of its own. Though, with a name as generic as Trans States Airlines, expectations are probably low going in. Another problem with the name is that it sounds too close to the defunct Trans World Airlines (TWA). An acronym of ‘TSA’ would give passengers a whole host of negative associations.
While you were left guessing as to which half of SkyWest’s partners were low-ranking on this list, I have to give the secret up now, because Trans States Airlines only flies for them: United and American. Trans States Airlines operates a series of connecting flights for United as United Express. When wearing the American Airlines livery, Trans States Airlines flies as American Eagle.
The Trans States Airlines fleet is comprised entirely of Embraer 145 jets. These small jets seat fifty passengers in a space about half the width of a Boeing 767. The aisle of the E145 divides the seats in a 1 : 2 ratio. The plus side of this is that there is no middle seat. The lucky person in the single seat can also claim to be sitting in the window and aisle simultaneously.
If you are already a nervous flyer, sitting in an even smaller tin as your hurtle through the sky will make flying with Trans States Airlines an unpleasant part of your trip.
According to 2018 rankings by ASCI, Delta achieves a middle-of-the-pack score of 74, putting it on par with fellow legacy carrier American's score. Citing improvement in multiple areas, J.D. Power ranked Delta second among traditional American carriers in its 2017 report, giving it a score of 758. The Points Guy, as reported in Forbes, gives the carrier a respectable third-place because of its good handling of baggage, generally on-time arrivals, and extensive international network.
With a hub in Atlanta, Delta operates long-haul and ultra-long haul flights to and from the United States. Destinations include South Africa, East Asia, and Australia, along with the more run-of-the-mill pond-hopper flights to Europe. An early adopter of the Airbus A350, critics praise Delta for its creature comforts on these extremely long (and extremely trying) flights.
From its famous suites for high-rolling business travelers down through its various economy classes, Delta has looked into human physiology and entertainment trends in order to keep passengers not just happy, but healthy, on these superhuman flights.
Within the United States, Delta operates from coast to coast, partnering with SkyWest and Republic Airways.
While I have not often flown with Delta, I would certainly go into a flight with them without much worry about the quality of service or getting to my destination in good time.
Like Trans States Airlines and SkyWest before it, CommutAir’s ranking on this list is tied to those of the larger carriers with which it partners. In CommutAir’s case, this is United. Spoiler alert: United does not fare (pun intended) well on this list. Well, if you remember 2017, that probably is not much of a spoiler.
Sharing the United Express livery with Trans States Airlines, CommutAir helps the massive legacy carrier shuttle passengers to smaller or less-frequented airports. Like Trans States Airlines, CommutAir exclusively operates a fleet of Embraer 145 jets. As mentioned before, the good of this is that every one of the fifty passengers on a fully-packed flight has a good seat: whether aisle, window, or in the case of the single-seat passengers, both.
Growing up, we flew United Express from Houston to Cincinnati and back when visiting my grandmother. My sister and I both wanted that single-seat. As such, one of us got the single seat going to grandma’s and the other got it leaving grandma’s.
The downside of the ERJ-145 is that it makes the experience worse for nervous flyers. Turbulence is magnified on Embraer flights. With a smaller cabin, there is even more of a sense of being trapped in a tin can for those who suffer from claustrophobia (myself included).
As such, CommutAir is not the airline most people look forward to flying.
The main criticism of Spirit Airlines is that while it is ultra-low-cost (and ultra-low-frills), there are numerous tacked-on fees for anything but the most minimal services. Spirit did not fair well in ASCI's rankings, achieving a measly score of 62, which put it at the bottom of the firm's list, tied with Frontier. The Points Guy, as relayed by Forbes, was more generous, giving it seventh place of nine major U.S. airlines. His reasoning was that its improvements in baggage handling, which actually make it
the airline that loses the fewest bags per 1,000 checked, helps balance out the many additional fees.
I flew Spirit round-trip once in March 2017. My friends and I planned to spend our spring break at Orlando’s theme parks, and we were eager to save money for activities on the ground. As one of the friends I was traveling with was a business student, we let him pick the airline. Eager for a deal, he chose Spirit, which charges for carry-ons as well as checked bags. I was somewhat miffed to learn I would not get free water on the plane.
The flight was pleasant and straightforward and our bags made it to Orlando. I discovered the next day that the bottle of water I bought before boarding had not been enough. I do think I became dehydrated on the flight and this led to a good deal of physical discomfort the next day. The moral of the story: you get what you pay for. Buy that water. There is something grating about paying extra for something as essential to a healthy trip as water, though.
Silver Airways is, yet again, an airline with a low ranking on this list because of the reputation of another carrier. In this case, however, the other carrier is not a major airline for which Silver Airways flies, but the defunct company out of which it was formed.
Gulfstream was a partner carrier for major airlines until investigations into its safety practices, and a high-profile crash involving a graduate of its pilot training academy, led it to bankruptcy. The Federal Aviation Administration fined Gulfstream over a million dollars in 2009 for poor maintenance and for its pilot scheduling practices. Hours flown by pilots were often not logged in the computer system, leading to over-scheduling and pilot fatigue. Additionally, the pilot of a Colgan Air flight that crashed outside Buffalo in February 2009 graduated Gulfstream’s training program, which was criticized as inadequate.
Gulfstream went bankrupt as a result of the fine and controversy. In 2010, Silver Airways was formed from its remaining assets. Silver Airways operates as a regional airline in Florida, providing service to destinations in the Bahamas as its primary selling point. While the new carrier has operated without major incident, the shadow of Gulfstream will loom over its reputation for some time.
The ever-popular jetBlue receives a score of 79 from ASCI, tying with Alaska Airlines for second place. ASCI rates jetBlue lower this year than last, when its score of 83 earned it first place. J.D. Power also ranks jetBlue as second in its 2017 list of low-cost carriers, assigning it a score of 803. For comparison, J.D. Power gives the segment average score for low-cost carriers to be 784. As reported by Forbes, jetBlue ranks eighth of the nine best U.S. airlines. Eighth place is a steep fall from fourth last year; The Points Guy cites jetBlue's lack of a large network, as compared to Southwest or American, as outweighing its comfortable cabins. Additionally, while jetBlue may be cheap, it still has fees that make it more expensive than budget carriers such as Frontier and Spirit.
JetBlue services the Northeast Corridor and the West Coast, with only a few stops in the Heartland. My friends from California loyally took jetBlue to and from school in Boston, citing the low fares and relative comfort.
Outside of the continental U.S., jetBlue also flies to Mexico and throughout the Caribbean. Further to the south, the airline also operates flights to Venezuela, Colombia, and a few locations in Central America.
This is, I promise, the last time this list will judge an airline based on another carrier’s merits. But the U.S. aviation industry is a corporate jungle of major carriers and their smaller partners that do not operate under their own names, so it is inevitable that there is a trickle-down effect on the junior partners, for better or worse.
Envoy Air is actually the largest regional carrier used by American Airlines, which does not have the best reputation for on-time arrivals and customer satisfaction. Looking at the peppy, brightly colored Envoy website, one almost forgets that fact. Envoy is wholly owned by American.
The Envoy fleet includes Bombardier and Embraer 145 jets, fairly standard when compared to the other regional partners profiled on this list. A new class of Embraer 170 and Embraer 175 jets is currently being incorporated into the fleet.
Envoy provides 1,000 daily flights to 150 destinations which, compared to some of the regional partners listed here, is a fairly low number. Think of SkyWest with its over 2,000 daily flights.
This means that Envoy, through no real fault of its own, lands on this list as one of the airlines passengers are not anxious to fly.
Allegiant belongs to the same category of ultra-low-cost carriers as Frontier and Spirit. Allegiant flies throughout the continental United States and to Puerto Rico as well. As of now, it has no international presence, which may account for its being less-well-known than its budget competitors.
Allegiant achieves a score of 74 from ASCI, though the survey warns that recent news of mechanical and safety troubles may undermine consumer confidence in the coming year. I know it would undermine this consumer's confidence. Nevertheless, it remains in the middle of ASCI's rankings for performance and customer satisfaction. Allegiant does not crack The Points Guy's top ten of 2018, as reported by Forbes.
The safety troubles in question were reported by aviation officials to CBS. In a video segment, these officials said they refused, as individuals, to fly on Allegiant. There have been no fatal incidents, only diverted flights to head off potential mechanical or medical troubles.
Allegiant called the allegations inaccurate and intended to pursue legal action. Industry experts say that flying is one of the safest modes of transportation. While budget airlines like Allegiant tend to operate older, second-hand aircraft, there is a tendency across the sector to upgrade to newer, more-fuel-efficient fleets as soon as possible.
J.D. Power gives American Airlines a rating of 736, which falls close to the segment average index score of 740. American may receive a decent score of 74 from ASCI, but there are other issues at play here. As reported in Forbes,
The Points Guy castigates American for its inability to stay on schedule, tendency to lose baggage, and fees. Most harshly of all, American ranks only somewhat better than ultra-low-cost carriers Frontier and Spirit in terms of customer satisfaction. Spirit charges passengers to drink water, which is setting a pretty low bar, one American Airlines only barely clears.
These poor ratings come despite American’s legacy carrier status and its huge network, managed through partnerships with Envoy, Republic, Trans States, and SkyWest. Even the airline’s reach cannot provide convenience to outweigh the customer comfort and scheduling issues it faces.
My personal experience with American has been limited, mostly because its reputation precedes it and I usually have other options to get to my destinations. When I have flown American (Boston to Phoenix for a wedding, Boston to Cincinnati to visit family), it has usually meant a stop (Chicago or DFW) with an uncomfortably close window in which to make my connection.
Alaska Airlines began in the 1930s with one three-seat bush plane. “McGee Airways,” owned and operated exclusively by Linious McGee himself, flew from Anchorage to smaller settlements in the wilderness. From humble origins came great things, though.
Alaska Airlines has been at the top of the J.D. Power rankings of traditional carriers for a decade, receiving an index score of 765. The Points Guy, as reported in Forbes, gives Alaska first place, in part because of its purchase of the well-reviewed Virgin.
However, as The Points Guy notes, Alaska Airlines has a limited international network and operates primarily in the states to the west of the Rocky Mountains. With its acquisition of Virgin, though, I think it is likely that Alaska Airlines will expand its international presence, using the existing facilities at Heathrow Airport, including that space-age lounge. Between the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Russian economy in the early 1990s, Alaska did operate service to the Russian Far East. With current tensions, it seems unlikely this will resume.
Yet the accolades just keep coming for the former bush-pilot airline. In the 2018 ASCI rankings, Alaska Airlines ties for second place with jetBlue, with both receiving a score of 79. This makes the two airlines only close seconds to our unlikely first-place contender...
Frontier has the distinction of tying for last place in ASCI's ranking of major U.S. airlines. The airline it shares this 'honor' with can be found further down the list. J.D. Power also rates it as the worst of the low-cost American carriers, with a score of 664. The segment average, by comparison, is 784. According to The Points Guy, Frontier ranks fifth this year because of the "aggressive growth of its route network" and fewer lost bags. As reported in Forbes, however, The Points Guy cautions that Frontier's rise from ninth place in 2017 is largely the product of a change in the judgement metrics.
From its hub in Denver, Frontier Airlines flies across the Lower 48. The budget carrier also has a few routes to Mexican beach resorts, along with service to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
In the last few years, Frontier cut its ticket price by more than ten percent, but did so by adding ancillary fees on almost everything except the right to get on the plane and fasten your seatbelt. This has sparked comparisons to Spirit and Allegiant, its competitors in the super-budget class. These competitors pull ahead of Frontier for reasons outlined in their entries on this list.
At least the designs on the planes’ tails are cool?
Hear me out on this one.
Southwest comes in as the ASCI's highest-ranked airline in the organization's 2018 Travel Press Release. For the third year in a row, the low-cost carrier maintained its index score of 80, allowing it to pull ahead to first when JetBlue's score slipped. In the 2017 J.D. Power rankings of low-cost carriers, Southwest also came on top. The airline achieved its highest index score yet from J.D. Power, an impressive 807, as compared to a segment average of 784. Forbes, reporting the findings of The Points Guy,
gave Southwest a 10/10 for baggage handling.
I have flown Southwest almost exclusively for the last five years. The airline began service between Houston (my hometown) and Boston (where I went to school) just as I graduated high school. A round-trip flight usually costs under $200 dollars, especially if it is not direct.
With two free checked bags and no charge for carry-ons, Southwest was ideal for schlepping back and forth during school vacation. I have only had issues with claiming my bags once, a few days before Christmas 2017. Southwest found the bag within 24 hours and, since I elected to pick up the bag at the airport, I received a $100 voucher, which covered more than half of my next trip.
The cabin crew and pilots are always in a good mood. Passengers actually pay attention to the safety demonstrations because the attendants usually turn it into a comedy routine. Life vests are called “itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikinis.” Budget fares with smiling service. What more could you ask for?
United falls near the bottom of the pack in the 2018 ASCI rankings, with a measly score of 67. This is down from 71 last year.
One has to think viral videos of a customer being dragged from the plane had at least something to do with that decline. When United was not able to free four seats from O’Hare for a late-arriving flight crew (evidence in itself of how United tends not to stay on schedule), they began involuntarily bumping customers. One of these was a doctor who was dragged from the plane by airport security after refusing to give up his seat because he had to get to his destination that night. Video of the man, glasses falling from his face as the officers dragged him out by the arms, caused outrage, as did speculation that he may have been targeted for his Asian heritage.
But even the 2017 J.D. Power rankings, which were released only a month after that incident and based on earlier data, gave United a low score of 716, placing it just ahead of last-place Air Canada. The Points Guy gives United fourth place, down from second last year, as its customer relations fiasco did not change much about its underlying operations.