Traveling by plane costs an average of $363 per trip. And choosing the wrong airline has the potential to take even more from us. For instance, 10 animals died during air transportation in 2018, and four major U.S. airlines had at least one pet fatality.
While critical to consider, such factors often fly under the radar due to our focus on price. But finding the cheapest airfare is now quite easy for anyone with an internet connection. So this report examines those other, overlooked aspects of air travel to help consumers make more-informed decisions.
WalletHub compared the 9 largest U.S. airlines, plus three regional carriers, across 15 important metrics. They range from cancellation and delay rates to baggage mishaps and in-flight comfort. We also considered costs in relation to in-flight amenities for the sake of fairness. For example, it wouldn’t be right to penalize an airline that charges for drinks if its tickets are far cheaper than those from an airline with free in-flight refreshments.
2019's Best Airlines
|Best Airline Overall||Alaska Airlines|
|Cheapest Airline||Frontier Airlines|
|Most Reliable Airline||Delta Air Lines|
|Most Comfortable Airline||JetBlue Airways|
|Best Airline for Pets||ExpressJet Airlines and Envoy Air|
|Least Complained-About Airline||Southwest Airlines and ExpressJet Airlines|
|Safest Airline||Alaska Airlines|
Below, you can see where each major airline ranks, based on overall WalletHub Score.
Most Reliable Airline: Delta Air Lines has the lowest rate of cancelations, delays, mishandled luggage and denied boardings.
Most Comfortable Airline: JetBlue leads the pack in terms of in-flight experience, offering free amenities such as Wi-Fi, extra legroom, and complimentary snacks and beverages.
* The regional carriers SkyWest, ExpressJet and Envoy are not represented in this chart because they serve other major airlines, which may dictate what amenities are provided.
Cheapest Airline: Frontier and Spirit are the best airlines for budget flyers.
*Reflects passenger revenue per available seat mile (PRASM), obtained by dividing passenger revenue by the product of the number of available seats and the number of miles flown.
Most Pet-Friendly: Two airlines tied for being most pet-friendly, ExpressJet and Envoy, with no incidents.
*Four major airlines do not transport animals: Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, and Spirit.
Most Satisfactory Airline: Southwest Airlines and ExpressJet Airlines had the industry’s lowest consumer-complaint rate in 2018.
Safest Airline: Alaska Airlines was the safest in 2018. The safety runner-up is Spirit Airlines.
The tables below illustrate the number of points that each airline received based on the scoring system defined in the methodology.
National Airline Scores
|Metric||Max Score||American Airlines||Delta Air Lines||Southwest Airlines||United Airlines||JetBlue Airways||Frontier Airlines||Hawaiian Airlines||Alaska Airlines||Spirit Airlines|
|Mishandled Baggage Reports||7.00||1.91||4.98||3.40||3.87||5.05||3.65||3.70||3.70||5.10|
|Animal Related Incidents||5.00||4.61||3.85||N/A||4.11||N/A||N/A||0.00||4.94||N/A|
|Aviation Incidents & Accidents||6.00||3.15||2.00||3.83||0.76||2.53||0.00||1.09||4.61||3.23|
|Fatal Injuries in Aviation Accidents||10.00||10.00||10.00||0.00||10.00||10.00||10.00||10.00||10.00||10.00|
|Injuries in Aviation Incidents & Accidents||10.00||0.00||1.25||1.00||0.00||1.00||1.25||1.25||1.25||1.25|
Regional Airline Scores (1)
|Metric||Max Score||SkyWest Airlines||ExpressJet Airlines||Envoy Air|
|Mainly Serves||N/A||American, Delta, Alaska and United||American, Delta and United||American|
|Mishandled Baggage Reports (2)||7.00||1.28||0.03||0.00|
|Animal Related Incidents||5.00||4.76||5.00||5.00|
|Entertainment Options (3)||1.00||0.00||0.00||0.00|
|Wi-Fi Availability (3)||1.00||0.50||0.00||0.00|
|Complimentary Refreshments (3)||1.00||1.00||1.00||0.00|
|Aviation Incidents & Accidents||6.00||4.74||4.12||3.92|
|Fatal Injuries in Aviation Accidents||10.00||10.00||10.00||10.00|
|Injuries in Aviation Incidents & Accidents||10.00||1.25||1.25||1.25|
(1) Regional airlines that serve other major airlines. There are more regional carriers serving the national airlines, but these are the only ones required to report to the DOT and that have at least 1 percent of total domestic scheduled-service passenger revenues.
(2) As a regional airline, ExpressJet does not control baggage handling or bookings. These are handled by the main airline served.
(3) Depending on the major airline served, flights from this airline may or may not provide the service. Please see Methodology for scoring.
(4) There may be discrepancies caused by variations in how airlines code the delay data that they report to the DOT.
Airline travel is essential for business, vacation, migration and so many other aspects of society. Airlines have increasing pressure to provide comfortable, convenient service to their passengers. To gain further insight on this topic, WalletHub turned to a panel of experts. Click on the experts to see their bios and responses to the following key questions.
- What measures can airlines undertake in order to diminish their pilot shortage?
- What are the easiest measures that airlines can implement in order to increase passengers’ comfort?
- Is there an easy measure that airlines can implement in order to reduce congestion at the counter?
- What do you believe will be the main trend for the medium term in the airline industry? Will we see consolidation or the rise of regional players?
Ask the Experts
In this report, we sought to supplement easily accessible price-comparison tools by identifying the best and worst airlines in terms of overall service quality and functional performance. To this end, we evaluated the 9 largest national airlines as well as three regional carriers (that report to the Department of Transportation because they have at least 1 percent of total domestic scheduled-service passenger revenues) in terms of 15 key metrics across four major categories: 1) Baggage, departures and complaints, 2) Animal incidents, 3) In-flight comfort and cost and 4) Safety.
After collecting and analysing 2018 flight data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, we shared our findings with each airline.
You can find the detailed scoring framework used to evaluate each airline below. Each metric within this framework was assigned a given number of points based on our subjective view of its importance and we also determined the best and worst value within each metric. We generally allocated points based on common sense, with the best value for each metric being awarded full points, the worst value receiving zero points and values in between receiving a proportional score relative to those endpoints, except for the metrics where a different scoring method is specified.
- Baggage, Departures & Complaints (Total Score: 50 points)
- a. Cancelled Flights (Max Score: 7 points)
We collected the number of reported flight cancellations by each airline, then excluded any weather, security, and National Aviation System related cancellations, as they are not carrier-specific. We then divided the resulting figure by the corresponding number of regularly scheduled flights (excluding uncontrollable causes) to obtain the overall percentage of cancelled flights. Ranges used for scoring are Best = 0.00%, Worst = 0.80%, with best receiving the most points and worst receiving the least.
- b. Delays (Max Score: 17 points)
We identified the number of each airline’s flights that were delayed by more than 15 minutes, excluded weather, security and National Aviation System related delays, and divided the resulting figure by the total number of regularly scheduled flights (excluding uncontrollable causes) to obtain each airline’s delayed-flight percentage. Ranges used for scoring are Best = 1.00%, Worst = 17.00%, with best receiving the most points and worst receiving the least.
- c. Mishandled Baggage Reports (Max Score: 7 points)
We used the total number of mishandled (i.e. lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered) baggage reports received by each airline to determine the rate of mishandled baggage per 1,000 enplaned passengers. Ranges used for scoring are Best = 0.50, Worst = 5.00, with best receiving the most points and worst receiving the least.
- d. Denied Boardings (Max Score: 7 points)
We determined how many passengers with confirmed reservations were involuntarily denied boarding oversold flights on each airline. We then used this number to arrive at the rate of involuntary denied boardings per 10,000 passengers for each airline. Ranges used for scoring are Best = 0.00, Worst = 0.60, with best receiving the most points and worst receiving the least.
- e. Complaints (Max Score: 12 points)
We collected the total number of complaints filed against each airline. We then used this number to arrive at rate of complaints per 100,000 passengers. Ranges used for scoring are Best = 0.50, Worst = 1.50, with best receiving the most points and worst receiving the least.
- Animal Related Incidents (Total Score: 5 points)
For each airline, we divided the number of animals that died, were injured or got lost by the total number of animals transported in order to adjust for volume. We then applied the following weights to the resulting ratios, so as to account for the severity of the incident: -1 for lost animals, -3 for injuries and -6 for deaths.Finally, we applied the following scoring criteria:
- Full Points = 0 (the closer to 0 an airline’s adjusted incident ratio was, the more points it received).
- No Points = The airline with the lowest ratio based on the above weights.
We did not score the four airlines that do not transport pets (Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit) in this category and these four airlines were not penalized for this.
- In-Flight Comfort And Cost (Total Score: 15 points)
- a. Leg Room (Max Score: 2 points)
- If all of an airline’s flights provide at least 30 inches of leg room in economy class/coach seats = Full points
- If all of an airline’s flights do not provide at least 30 inches of leg room in economy class/coach seats = No points
- b. Entertainment Options (Max Score: 1 point)
- If the airline provides some form of entertainment option (e.g. movies or live TV) on most of its flights = Full points
- If the airline does not provide entertainment options on any or most of the airplanes in its fleet = No points
- c. Wi-Fi Availability (Max Score: 1 point)
- If the airline provides free Wi-Fi on most of its flights = Full points
- If the airline provides limited free Wi-Fi on most of its flights = 0.625 points
- If the airline provides Wi-Fi for a cost on most of its flights = 0.5 point
- If the airline does not provide Wi-Fi on most of its flights = No points
- d. Complimentary Refreshments (Max Score: 1 point)
- If the airline provides both free food and drinks on all domestic flights over 2 hours = Full points
- If the airline provides either free food or free drinks on all domestic flights over 2 hours = 0.5 points
- If the airline does not provide free food or drinks on all domestic flights over 2 hours = No points
- e. Price (Max Score: 10 points)
We collected “Passenger Revenue per ASM,” defined as passenger revenue divided by available seat miles, for each airline. We then defined the best and worst as follows: best = 5 cents, worst = 13 cents.
- Safety (Total Score: 30 points)
- a. Number of Aviation Incidents & Accidents per Total Number of Flight Operations (2013-2018) (Max Score: 6 points)
For each airline, we divided the number of incidents and accidents by the total number of flight operations. We applied the following scoring criteria:
- Full Points = 0 (the closer to 0 an airline’s adjusted incident ratio was, the more points it received)
- No Points = The airline with the lowest ratio based on the calculation mentioned above.
- b. Number of Fatal Injuries in Aviation Accidents (2013-2018) (Max Score: 10 points)
- Airlines with no fatalities reported due to aircraft related issues = Full Points
- Airlines with 1 or more fatalities reported due to aircraft related issues = No Points
- c. Number of Injuries in Aviation Incidents & Accidents (2013-2018) (Max Score: 10 points)
- c. Number of Injuries in Aviation Incidents & Accidents (2013-2018) (Max Score: 10 points)
We applied the following scoring criteria:
- If there were no injuries sustained by passengers and/or aircraft personnel that required medical care = Full points
- If there were under 15 injuries sustained by passengers and/or aircraft personnel that required medical care = 1.25 points
- If there were between 15 and 50 injuries sustained by passengers and/or aircraft personnel that required medical care = 1 point
- If there were more than 50 injuries sustained by passengers and/or aircraft personnel that required medical care = No points
For the metrics a., b. and c. we also included data from preliminary reports.
- d. Average Fleet Age (Max Score: 4 points)
An older fleet is more vulnerable to technical glitches and operational mishaps. We applied the following scoring criteria:
- Average fleet age under 10 years = Full points
- Average fleet age between 10 and 15 years = 1 point
- Average fleet age exceeds 15 years = No points
The regional airlines considered in this report – namely, SkyWest, Envoy and ExpressJet – serve more than one major airline and may or may not offer certain services mentioned under in-flight comfort, depending on the major airline served for a particular flight. In such cases, we used the average of the maximum and minimum potential scores for each situation to calculate the final score received. Data was collected on April 30, 2019.