Airline travel. For most passengers, just the sound of it allows jolts of PTSD to crack into consciousness. It has become a constant struggle to avoid ultra-tight seating, hefty luggage fees, and itinerary-wrecking delays – a veritable crap shoot on every flight. But a small number of carriers try to deliver consistently good travel experiences, according to a recent readers survey conducted by Consumer Reports.
To identify the best and worst airlines, the consumer products channel surveyed more than 55,000 members, who reported on nearly 98,000 domestic economy flights and 8,700 first-class and business-class flights. Readers weighed in on such factors as including airline seat comfort and legroom, cleanliness, service by airline staff, food and beverage selection, WiFi connectivity, and pricing transparency.
Out of the 11 airlines surveyed, Southwest landed at the top of the ratings chart for overall satisfaction by passengers on economy flights with high scores for staff service, ease of check-in, and cabin cleanliness. And it was the only airline to earn top marks for pricing transparency — the no-frills carrier clearly lists its fees and allows passengers to check two bags for free.
Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, Virgin America (now part of Alaska Airlines), and Hawaiian Airlines were also rated highly for economy flights. Like Southwest, these airlines received favorable ratings for staff service, check-in ease, and cabin cleanliness.
Among the lowest-rated airlines listed by coach passengers were Frontier, Spirit, United, American and Allegiant Airlines. Additionally, Spirit and Frontier Airlines received low marks in all the categories rated.
The survey then asked first-class and business-class travelers to rate their experiences. Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines fared among the highest rated airlines for overall satisfaction by passengers.
Hidden Airline Fees Rankle Travelers
The survey found that pricing remains a crucial issue for coach passengers. Some four in ten travelers who booked their flight said they chose their airline because it had the cheapest flight available.
However, more airlines are adding basic economy seating, which means flyers are increasingly paying additional fees for what used to be standard service. More than half of economy passengers in the survey were charged to select a better seat, and 40 percent who checked a bag were charged an extra fee.
It’s often difficult to avoid add-on charges, which may not be immediately clear when booking online. Half of those surveyed said they were unsure or could not remember if any extra fees were added to their bill when they purchased their ticket.
Travelers also say that they are often confused during the booking process, according to Anna Laitin, director of financial policy for Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. “Often, with some of these budget airlines, travelers think that they have to pay for a seat on top of the cost of the ticket,” Laitin says.
Advocates say the airlines must do a better job of fee transparency. Last December the U.S. Department of Transportation dropped proposals that would have required airlines to disclose checked and carry-on bag fees at the start of a ticket purchase rather than later on.
Contracting Comfort in Coach
Although more than half of coach passengers did not experience in-flight or onboard problems with their flight, nearly 30 percent reported that their seat was uncomfortable. In fact, all the airline economy flights rated by during this survey process received low scores for the seat comfort and legroom categories.
That’s no surprise, since airlines are cramming more seats into their coach sections, even as the average American is growing larger.
For all the carriers, the complimentary and paid food and beverage choices were marked below average by coach passengers. Most airlines also received low scores for their WiFi connectivity and in-flight entertainment options.
The most common check-in or on-ground problem reported by survey respondents was a flight delay—12 percent of the flights we asked about were delayed, with the median wait lasting 76 minutes.
Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines had the fewest flight holdups. Though Consumer Reports didn’t have enough data to report median wait time for Hawaiian Airlines, for those airlines that we did, Alaska and Southwest Airlines had the shortest reported delay times.
First Class Competition
Of the five airlines rated for first-class and business-class travel, Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines are among the highest rated carriers. Hawaiian Airlines was the only airline to receive top marks for legroom. Alaska Airlines received the highest score for pricing transparency during the booking process.
Though all five airlines receive higher overall satisfaction scores from first-class and business-class travelers, Delta landed in the middle of the pack. United and American Airlines are among the lowest rated, with average marks for seat comfort and below average scores for WiFi and in-flight entertainment.
Still, all five carriers received average or above average scores for staff service. And first-class and business-class passengers were generally more satisfied with their flight experience, compared with coach travelers—about what could be expected given the extra amenities these carriers provide their higher-paying passengers.
Finding the Best Air Fares
More travelers pick airlines based on convenience rather than cost. But shopping around is highly recommended. “No single travel site or airline consistently offers the best deals in all cases,” says William McGee, airline consultant for Consumers Union.
And flexibility in timing pays off, according to Consumer Reports:
Scoring the Best Seats
Start checking for available seats 72 hours before departure. That’s when airlines may start releasing those that were earlier reserved for people who have been upgraded or have canceled, which means you might be able to select a plum spot—without having to pay extra for it.
Consult the SeatGuru website for seating maps of most airlines’ planes, including seat pitch and width. Green seats have more room; yellow seats have at least one drawback (such as no window, limited recline or leg room, or proximity to a galley or restroom); red seats have multiple drawbacks.
Boarding Early and Saving on Baggage Fees
Checking just one bag could cost you $36 to $200 round-trip. Making do with a carry-on is an obvious way to avoid bag fees—unless you’re flying on Allegiant, Frontier, or Spirit, which charge for carry-on bags.
If traveling light isn’t an option, consider signing up for one of the airline credit cards that might offer benefits like free checked bags, early boarding, and discounts on food and beverages. American’s AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard, Gold Delta SkyMiles from American Express, and United MileagePlus Explorer Card, for instance, all have annual fees less than $100. (Learn about Consumer Reports’ Credit Card Adviser Comparison Tool, which will help you choose cash-back credit cards customized for your spending habits.)
Speeding Through Security
Flyers who have registered with TSA PreCheck enjoy expedited screening at more than 180 U.S. airports, saving time and stress. The Transportation Security Administration says that 95 percent of the people going through the pre-check line waited 5 minutes or less in June. Another perk: PreCheck participants are not required to take off their shoes, jackets, or belts, or remove laptops or bottles with liquids from their bags. The cost is $85 for five years. You can start your enrollment online, then complete it by making an appointment to visit an enrollment center listed on the website.
Shifting Travel Dates
About 60 percent of passengers surveyed said the main reason for choosing their carrier was it had a flight that best fit their schedule. But if there is some leeway, check to see how ticket prices would change if flying a day or two earlier or later, or early in the morning or late at night.
Comparing flights at Different Airports
Some 36 percent of passengers cited availability of flights out of their preferred airport as the key reason for their choice. If more than one airport is near enough to make sense as a departure location, costs can often be trimmed by this broadener search.
For instance, a quick check of airfares from the New York City area to Los Angeles found a nonstop economy flight departing from JFK airport in the mid-morning for $412. But the least expensive flight, priced at $332, left from Newark Airport, also mid-morning.
Flying on a Holiday
Flying on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and return on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, bring a 25 percent to 50 percent discount off the price of a ticket on regular days.