The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alaska Airlines takes the top spot in the Points Guy survey of major U.S. carriers

For the second year in a row, Alaska Airlines takes the top spot in the Best and Worst U.S. Airlines in 2018, a study by the Points Guy.
For the second year in a row, Alaska Airlines takes the top spot in the Best and Worst U.S. Airlines in 2018, a study by the Points Guy. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Flying is an emotional experience. Travelers can bond — and break up — with an airline before the first beverage cart rolls down the aisle. Which is why the Points Guy relied on unfeeling numbers, not capricious hearts, to calculate the Best and Worst U.S. Airlines in 2018.

“We used data,” not passengers’ opinions, said Brian Kelly, the founder and chief executive of the Points Guy, a travel news and consumer-advice site. “But I was shocked that JetBlue scored so low.”

See, you cannot strip all the sentiment from an air travel study.

In the website’s second annual survey, JetBlue took the penultimate spot — eight places behind the champion, Alaska Airlines, and one above last place finisher Hawaiian Airlines. Yes, Kelly is bewildered by Hawaiian’s low placement, too.

“The last is not the worst,” he said as a consolation.

Hawaiian Airlines is not awful, he explained, but its higher fares and limited route network dragged down the airline like a coconut attached to the tail of a parrotfish. JetBlue, which earned high marks for cabin comfort and in-flight entertainment, dropped four places because of flight delays and low customer satisfaction, among other factors.

“It didn’t excel in any one category,” he said.

The study is based on 2017 facts and figures supplied by the On-Time Airline & Airport Rankings, the Transportation Department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics and Routehappy. The Points Guy, a savant of mileage plans, handled the airlines’ frequent-flier programs. The team filed the findings under four categories: price (specifically, airfare and baggage and change fees), convenience (route network, on-time arrivals and cabin comfort), headaches (customer satisfaction, lost luggage and involuntary bumps) and extras (frequent-flier programs and lounges). Price carried the most weight, with 25 percent of the total tally; route network accounted for 15 percent. The remaining components ranged from 2 percent to 10 percent.

“We were thinking about consumers,” he said of the categories. “The fliers come first.”

How to travel the world for ‘free’? The Points Guy shows you the way.

Kelly was not surprised Alaska held onto its crown for another year. “The airline continues to be a favorite of its customers, and ranked in the top 3 across half of our criteria — airfare, on-time arrivals, baggage handling, customer satisfaction and its best-in-the-industry frequent-flier program,” the report stated. He was, however, stunned by some of the other results. For one, United.

After a year of ghastly customer service, including the video-seen-around-the-Web of security forces dragging a Louisville doctor off an overbooked flight, the legacy carrier fell only two spots, to fourth. Kelly said the airline redeemed itself by reducing involuntary bumps and lowering the number of passenger complaints by 17 percent.

Another shocker: Spirit’s rise to seventh place from rock bottom. (Last year, the site featured 10 airlines; for 2018, it listed nine, due to Alaska’s purchase of Virgin America.) He said the budget carrier scored well on lost baggage, on-time arrivals and, of course, ridiculously low fares.

“They deliver cheap tickets to people who want cheap tickets,” he said.

However, penny-pinching Spirit could not touch bounteous Southwest that occupied second place. The carrier scored big with its modest ticket prices, expanding route map and generous policies, including two free checked bags and no change fees.

For next year’s survey, Kelly said they might tweak some of the percentage weights and show how close the airlines ranked, so travelers better understand the tight race. This year, for example, Alaska was less than one point ahead of Southwest, and Delta and United were separated by only a few tenths of a point.

“Maybe we won’t call it the best and the worst,” he said. “We will call it a ranking and see how the airlines can improve.”

The Points Guy is also considering a survey of transatlantic flights. Kelly said he plans to start collecting the indifferent data soon.

More from Travel:

Start planning your 2018 vacation now: Here are the best times to book flights

Most air travelers say taking off your shoes is okay. An etiquette expert disagrees.

How to care for your skin before, during and after a flight