2018’s Best Airlines
Traveling by plane costs an average of $370 per trip. And choosing the wrong airline has the potential to take even more from us. For instance, 24 animals died during air transportation in 2017, 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 two regional carriers, in 13 important categories. 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.
2018's Best Airlines
|Best Airline Overall||Alaska Airlines|
|Cheapest Airline||Spirit Airlines|
|Most Reliable Airline||Delta Air Lines|
|Most Comfortable Airline||JetBlue Airways|
|Best Airline for Pets||Hawaiian Airlines|
|Least Complained-About Airline||Southwest 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 cancellations, 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.
Cheapest Airline … Spirit and Frontier are the best airlines for budget flyers.
Least Pet-Friendly … Nearly 1 in 10,000 animals died, got injured or were lost while transported by major U.S. airlines in 2017. None were incident-free, but United and American had the highest incident rates.
Most Satisfactory Airline … Southwest Airlines had the industry’s lowest consumer-complaint rate in 2017, while Frontier and Spirit had the highest complaint rates by far.
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||10.00||4.81||7.06||4.82||5.83||7.44||5.18||5.00||7.08||7.54|
|Animal Related Incidents||15.00||9.21||11.51||N/A||0.00||N/A||N/A||15.00||13.26||N/A|
Regional Airline Scores (1)
|Metric||Max Score||SkyWest Airlines||ExpressJet Airlines|
|Mainly Serves||N/A||American, Delta, Alaska and United||American, Delta and United|
|Mishandled Baggage Reports (2)||10.00||4.18||2.49|
|Denied Boardings (2)||10.00||9.70||9.46|
|Animal Related Incidents||15.00||15.00||15.00|
|Entertainment Options (3)||2.00||0.00||0.00|
|Wi-Fi Availability (3)||2.00||0.00||0.00|
|Complimentary Refreshments (3)||2.00||0.00||0.00|
(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.
(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.
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 two 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 13 key metrics across three major categories: 1) Baggage, departures and complaints, 2) Animal incidents and 3) In-flight comfort and cost.
After collecting and analyzing 2017 flight data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, we shared our findings with each airline. One of them – namely, Southwest – either did not meet our deadline for input or did not provide any feedback.
You can find the detailed scoring framework used to evaluate each airline below. Each metric within this framework was assigned a given weight based on our subjective view of its importance and we also determined the best and worst value within each metric. Points were generally allocated 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. Certain metrics – such an animal deaths reported – were binary, with either full points or no points being allocated, given our belief that no middle ground exists.
Baggage, Departures & Complaints (Total Score: 65 points)
- a. Cancelled Flights (Max Score: 10 points)
- b. Delays (Max Score: 20 points)
- c. Mishandled Baggage Reports (Max Score: 10 points)
- d. Denied Boardings (Max Score: 10 points)
- e. Complaints (Max Score: 15 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 = 1.00%, with best receiving the most points and worst receiving the least.
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 = 15.00%, with best receiving the most points and worst receiving the least.
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.
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 = 10.00, with best receiving the most points and worst receiving the least.
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 = 1.00, Worst = 16.00, with best receiving the most points and worst receiving the least.
Animal Related Incidents (Total Score: 15 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.
The four airlines that do not transport pets (Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, and Spirit) were not scored in this category. As a result, they were evaluated on an 85-point scale, which was then adjusted proportionally to reflect 100 possible points for comparison purposes with other airlines.
For example, if one of the five aforementioned airlines received a total of 42.5 points out of a possible 85, its overall score would be adjusted to 50 out of 100 (50%).
In-Flight Comfort And Cost (Total Score: 20 points)
- a. Leg Room (Max Score: 4 points)
- If all 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: 2 points)
- 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 airlines in its fleet = No points
- c. Wi-Fi Availability (Max Score: 2 points)
- If the airline provides free Wi-Fi on most of its flights = Full points
- If the airline provides Wi-Fi for a cost on most of its flights = 1 point (category is cumulative with the below)
- If the airline provides free Wi-Fi for limited apps on most of its flights = 0.25 points (category is cumulative with the above)
- If the airline does not provide Wi-Fi on most of its flights = No points
- d. Complimentary Refreshments (Max Score: 2 points)
- 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 = 1 point
- 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 the values for “Passenger Revenue per ASM,” defined as passenger revenue divided by available seat miles, for each airline. Ranges used for scoring are Best = 5 cents, Worst = 17 cents, with best receiving the most points and worst receiving the least.
The regional airlines considered in this report – namely, SkyWest, ExpressJet – serve more than one major airline such as American, Delta, United and Alaska and may or may not offer certain services mentioned under in-flight comfort, depending on the major airline served. In such cases, we used the average of the maximum and minimum potential scores for each situation to calculate the final score received. Data is accurate as of March 26, 2018.
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