Home Airlines What’s The Best U.S.-Based Airline?

What’s The Best U.S.-Based Airline?

by joeheg

When booking an airline ticket, you’ll have to choose between several airlines. How do you decide?  Maybe you always fly with one airline because you have status with them, or you have their co-brand credit card and get a free bag and preferred boarding. Whatever the reason, you have one.

For me, it’s a little more complicated. I have co-brand credit cards from almost every airline we regularly use. I have no status with any airline, and I’m not looking to achieve any status level, either. I pick an airline based on a combination of the flight experience, price, and schedule. So that means I’m looking for the lowest price, but I’m willing to pay more for an airline that I’d prefer to fly with. Schedule and cost are set, so the only variable I have to set a value for in the equation is which airline we like to fly on the most.

Please understand that these ratings are mine alone (with some serious input from Sharon since I’m not a stupid husband) (Note from Sharon: Yup. Happy wife = happy life, my love!). Your situation and rankings might be totally opposite from mine (ours). That’s OK because like many things, Your Mileage May Vary. 

1. Delta (Up From #2)

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Delta is our favorite airline. They just tend to do all of the important things right. Flights are on time more than almost any other airline. Their onboard product is consistent throughout their fleet, offering Wi-Fi on almost all of their planes and still offering IFE, unlike other airlines that tell passengers to use their own devices. Delta’s employees, on average, seem to enjoy their jobs, or at least they act like they do. I also like that Delta’s Twitter desk is (usually) able to help out in a pinch instead of just sending an AI-generated reply.

For us, the big advantage of flying on Delta is their primary hub, located in Atlanta, is very close to Orlando. While we can find some non-stop flights on Delta (like to New York, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City), most of our other flights will require a connection. Because Delta has so many flights in and out of Atlanta, even if there’s a problem (like weather delay, mechanical issue, or a missed connection), there’s usually a different way we can get to our destination. Delta also runs a good airline.

I’m over people dinging Delta because of their SkyMiles loyalty program. It’s gotten to the point where there’s no significant difference between most of the programs, and if you’re loyal to a program, it should be because it’s the best for you and not because you get value from your loyalty.

2. JetBlue (Down From #1)

JetBlue Plane

It was hard for me to drop JetBlue from the top spot on my list. They were the go-to pick for a while, but I had to look at some of the changes they’ve made. JetBlue introduced a restrictive Blue Basic fare that required payment for a seat assignment and doesn’t allow you to change or cancel your ticket.

JetBlue has also taken the title of “Airline Most Likely To Increase Baggage Fees.” They were the first to increase fees from $25 to $30, and now they charge $35 if you don’t pay for a checked bag at least 24 hours before your flight (United has already followed JetBlue’s lead, with American and Delta likely close behind).

I’m also not forgetting that they changed from serving Coke to Pepsi products on their planes.

I still think JetBlue tries to do things that make the onboard experience pleasant. You get free Wi-Fi at every seat on all of their planes. They are upgrading all their older planes to have up to date media screens with DIRECTV and SiriusXM radio. The problem is the updates were supposed to be finished by 2018, and now the project isn’t due to be completed until the end of 2020. While I love the tech in the new seats, they’re also less comfortable to sit in than their old seats, when it comes to longer flights.

3. Southwest (Unchanged)

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Southwest takes the third place on the list. Their fares are no longer the lowest, so they need to compete on the product they offer. Their Transfarency®  policy (getting two free checked bags per person, no charge for seat assignments, no seat assignments at all) sets them apart from the other airlines. Southwest planes do not have IFE screens, but they do offer free streaming of movies and live TV over their Wi-Fi network onboard. Their Wi-Fi is also reasonably priced at $8 per day, which is great if you’re connecting flights.

Southwest does have its quirks. If you want a good seat, you’ll need to pay for early bird, which costs from $15-$25 per person. Southwest isn’t the best to deal with during irregular operations (storms, mechanical) and you need to be careful not to be burned by their cancellation rules. One positive change this year was Southwest doing away with mileage expiration for Rapid Rewards points.

4. Alaska (Unchanged)

Alaska Airlines Plane

I want to like Alaska more. We just took our second flight with them in as many years, and we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the airline. I just can’t rank them any higher based on such a small sample size. Maybe I would if we had more chances to fly with them. Alaska is based in the Northwestern U.S., and they only fly to Portland, Seattle, San Fransisco and San Diego from Orlando. People who fly with Alaska a lot tend to love their customer service, lounges, and their loyalty program (and frequent flyers LIKING a loyalty program is rare). One often overlooked fact is that Alaska has many flights to Hawaii, so they’re an airline to remember when flying to the islands from the west coast. (Note from Sharon: And don’t forget their issue with snacks)

5. American (Unchanged)

American Planes Parked at Terminal

While American holds onto the number 5 spot on my list, that’s not to say their position stayed the same. Since the last list, American went through a terrible stretch with operational issues related to a dispute with their unions. American’s employees at their best seemed to be detached and, at worst, appeared to dread showing up to work every day, taking it out on the passengers unfortunate enough to be on their flight.

Over the last few months, my opinion about American has changed. They’ve put their labor issues behind them for now, and the airline has been running more smoothly than any time in recent memory.

After our bad experiences with American’s employees (remember the “Your bag is too big for the overhead” incident Sharon experienced), we’ve adjusted our expectations and how we pack before getting on one of their planes. I also make sure to check which type of aircraft we’re flying on and try to avoid former U.S. Airways planes with no entertainment and no power, even in first class.

So American has gone from possibly dropping down a place or two on the list to sitting firmly in fifth place.

6. Frontier (Unchanged)

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We’ve flown on Frontier several times and the experience is fine. You know going in it’s going to be a no-frills experience and you get precisely that. Their seats don’t recline and you don’t even get a functional tray table to work on.

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While Frontier often advertises low rates, by the time you add in the things we would want to have when traveling, like a carry on bag and possibly a checked bag, it adds $50 to the ticket price each way.

For one of our flights, I purchased “The Works” package, which included our checked bag, a carry-on bag and seat assignment in Frontier’s stretch seat, which drastically improved the onboard experience, giving loads of legroom and a full-size tray.

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I’ve heard some stories about how horrible Frontier can be when they cancel a flight but this isn’t a problem isolated to Frontier. Maybe it just happens more to people flying with them due to Frontier’s limited route map. It’s for this reason that I’ll only choose to fly on Frontier when we have some “give” in our travel plans, and I’ll spend the $19 for coverage with Freebird in case of a lengthy delay or cancellation.

7. Spirit (Up From #8)

SpiritBare

I would say that Spirit is another airline that we just wouldn’t fly, but just recently Sharon let me price out a ticket because Spirit was so much cheaper than the other flight options we had. As it turned out, Spirit’s flight times were terrible and we paid more money to get better flights. It’s part of our being cheap but still being smart about our decisions. There are many things about Spirit that don’t match our flying preferences, but if you’re thinking about flying with them, here are some things you should know in advance before buying that ticket.

Since Sharon is even letting a thought of flying on Spirit into her head, it moves up one space on our list.

8. United (Down from #7)

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We’ve made a conscious decision not to fly with United. This is just our choice because we don’t want to reward them for bad behaviors. Nothing has changed since we’ve made this decision, and until management starts making better decisions, we’re staying away. I will say that in a time of stress where the choice was being stranded with no way to get to my destination or fly with United, I did consider them as an option. I was relieved when I found they had no flights available, so I didn’t have to make that choice.

The move down is because if it came down to it, I think Sharon would let me book a flight on Spirit before United (Note from Sharon: Nope. You dislike United slightly more than I do. I dislike Spirit much more than you do.).

9. Allegiant (Unchanged)

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Allegiant is last on the list for us. It’s just an airline we won’t fly on for many reasons, which I’ve spelled out in this post.

Final Thoughts

So there’s my list and the reason behind the rankings. I left out some airlines because they have a limited route network like Hawaiian, Sun Country and Silver Airways. This list is totally based on Sharon’s and my preferences. We value our vacation time and like to have uneventful travel as much as possible. A reliable airline with flight times that fit our needs is more important than finding the cheapest fare or earning credits for frequent flyer status. Your needs may be much different. If you live somewhere where JetBlue doesn’t fly, they might not even make your list at all. I just hope reading over my choices and seeing how I came up with the ranking will help the next time you need to make a decision between two (or more) airlines.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

6 comments

Gene February 27, 2020 - 7:42 pm

You should drop the United bashing. They are not worse than Frontier and Spirit.

Reply
joeheg February 27, 2020 - 8:58 pm

Why I won’t fly on United is for my own reasons and I have nothing against people who fly with or who are loyal to them. But you realize you just compared them to Frontier and Spirit? 🙂

Reply
derek February 27, 2020 - 8:06 pm

Hawaiian is supposed to be decent. Sun Country is a small fry and doesn’t deserve a ranking.

Reply
Christian February 27, 2020 - 9:29 pm

Obviously any list like this is extremely subjective. I’d place Delta second from the bottom and my wife would place them absolute dead last (or worse if that were possible). I’m trying to reconcile Delta doing some things well with our horrible experiences with them and Delta still comes up way short. If they hadn’t gone the Skypesos route, I might be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but while every other episode might just be excused as terrible luck or ineptitude, Delta hosing their most engaged customers was nowhere close to an accident. If you say that maybe I should give them another chance, I might suggest the same for United. United had a wretched reputation but has treated us considerably better than either American or Delta. While I have -never- gotten an upgrade as an elite with Delta or American, United has upgraded me almost half the time, with me being the lowest tie elite and usually flying on an award ticket.

Reply
Tyler March 4, 2020 - 9:20 pm

I recently flew up to Atlanta on JetBlue. This was my first time with JetBlue. The fare was great. Limited times, but they worked for me.

The flight up, we had the old cabin. The seats were comfortable, and leg room was fantastic — I had at least 3″ between my knees and the seat in front of me. But the TV screens were horrid. They all had some pulsing electrical interference that made looking at them nauseating. The map feature didn’t work, so I turned the brightness off, and went to my personal device.

On the return flight, we had the new Phase 1 cabin. They claim that due to the slimline seats, you have the same amount of usable legroom, despite the tighter pitch. Well, that’s a bunch of malarkey. My knees were pressed up against the seat in front of me. The TV screen was much nicer than the old ones… but mine did not work. So again, back to my personal device.

Overall, while I had a pleasant experience, I could not find a reason for me to prefer flying with them over Delta or Southwest. I thought the best in class leg room would sway me over, but apparently that is going away as they upgrade their interiors. So, they no longer stand out. Don’t get me wrong, if they have the best price and schedule, I would consider them. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to book them over Delta or Southwest.

Reply
joeheg March 5, 2020 - 12:45 am

I think your opinion of them is right in line with mine. That’s why they dropped from #1 this year.

Reply

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