Home Airlines What’s The Best U.S.-Based Airline? (2021 Update)

What’s The Best U.S.-Based Airline? (2021 Update)

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.

The current rankings are also affected by how each airline responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Every airline suffered, or is still suffering, from the massive shift in the number of travelers, but some handled it better than others.

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 opposite from mine (ours). That’s OK because, like many things, Your Mileage May Vary. 

1. Delta (Unchanged)

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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. On average, Delta’s employees seem to enjoy their jobs, or at least they act as if 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.

Delta has been at the front of the pack when it comes to providing social distancing on their planes. They’re also one of the only airlines that are still blocking middle seats, a practice they’ll continue until at least March 30, 2021. Delta has extended loyalty status from 2020 thru 2021 and rolled over MQM’s from 2020, keeping its loyal flyers happy.

One warning sign is the problems Delta had over the past two major holidays. When the traffic levels spiked, they didn’t seem to adjust in a timely manner, leaving many passengers stranded. For an airline that prided itself on operational excellence, it remains to be seen if these were isolated problems or a sign of things to come.

2. Southwest (Up from #3)

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Southwest takes second 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 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’s policies about flight changes put it in a good position when COVID-19 hit. They didn’t offer refunds if you wanted to cancel your flight. Instead, they put funds into a travel bank for future use. They also extended the length of time you could use those funds for flights until September 7, 2022. If you didn’t think you’d use them before that, you could also convert funds into Southwest Rapid Rewards points which never expire (but this option went away at the end of 2020).

3. JetBlue (Down From #2)

JetBlue Plane

It was hard for me to drop JetBlue once again this year. 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 didn’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 still think JetBlue tries to do things that make the onboard experience pleasant. You get free WiFi 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 then by 2020 but who knows when they’ll finish them all.

JetBlue lost some major points by how they originally handled COVID-19 when they refused to give refunds when they canceled a flight if they could reschedule you within 24 hours of your original flight time. JetBlue also joined the other airlines when they announced the elimination of change fees. However, they’ve only promised to keep that policy until February 2021.

4. Alaska (Unchanged)

Alaska Airlines Plane

I want to like Alaska more. In 2020, we 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)

Alaska kept its Mileage Plan members happy by extending status and companion certificates through 2021.  Alaska is also going to join the oneworld Alliance sometime in 2021.

5. American (Unchanged)

American Planes Parked at Terminal

American holds onto the number 5 spot on my list. With my 2020 rankings, I said how that position was by no means assured because of the operational issues related to a dispute with their unions. With those problems behind them, for now, American is solidly in the top five. It just has a way to go before it gets any higher on my list.

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. All of this while they’ve

American has also done an OK job dealing with COVID. They blocked middle seats for a while but stopped that practice in July. They’ve made it easier to cancel award tickets, stopped charging redeposit fees and removed the fee to make a reservation with a real person.

All of this while trying to figure out how to re-introduce the 737MAX back into the fleet.

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, including giving loads of legroom and a full-size tray.

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Frontier had some problems at the beginning of the COVID pandemic with giving credits to passengers when they canceled tickets. Frontier is also the only airline that’s doing temperature checks before letting a passenger board the plane, although that’s, admittedly, not the best way to ensure a passenger doesn’t have COVID.

7. Spirit (Unchanged)

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I would say that Spirit is another airline that we just wouldn’t fly. 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.

Spirit has made several changes due to COVID. Like all airlines, they require masks to be worn while on board, and they’ll even sell you one if you didn’t bring one.

8. United (Unchanged)

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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.

This has only been confirmed over the past year. United was the first airline to stop blocking middle seats. And in early 2020, while other airlines were making it easier to make changes to flights, United made its change rules more strict.  Let’s also not forget that they devalued the award chart right when people were canceling flights and looking to reschedule them in the future.

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. With not flying for the last 11 months, I can’t say anything about the onboard experience. But there’s a lot you can tell about a company from how they handle a crisis, and there’s been plenty of that to go around.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

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