The best US airlines in 2018

Everyone wants to know: Who is the best? As far as U.S. airlines go, the clear answer is…

No. 1 - Virgin America *
No. 1 - Alaska Airlines **
No. 1 - Southwest Airlines ***
No. 1 - United Airlines ****
No. 1 – Frontier *****

* - Best U.S. Airline Safety Video
** - Best U.S. Airline Named for a State
*** - Best Stock Ticker Symbol of a U.S. Airline
*** - Best U.S. Airline at Breaking Guitars
***** - Best U.S. Airline with Images of Animals on its Planes’ Tails

You get the idea. The real answer is, “It depends.” It depends on what’s important to you.

Is getting to your destination on time is your top priority?

Atlanta-headquartered Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) may be your best bet according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation. That is, unless you’re heading to or from our 50th state.
Hawaiian Airlines on the ramp at LAX

Of all the airlines reporting to the DOT, Delta had the second-best on-time arrival record for all of 2017, with 85.4 percent of its flights arriving on time. Hawaiian Airlines (NYSE:HA) did better, with 88.2 percent of its flights arriving on time.

Alaska Airlines was No. 3 with 82.6 percent of its flights on time followed by United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) at 82.1 percent and American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) at No. 5 with 80.4 percent on-time performance.

A flight is counted as “on time” if it operated less than 15 minutes after the scheduled time shown in the carriers' Computerized Reservations Systems (CRS), the DOT notes in its report.

Worst on-time performance was logged by jetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU), at 71.4 percent.

Want to be sure you’ll actually get on your flight?

In truth, the chances of being bumped involuntarily are really very small, though they’re smaller on some carriers than others.

Delta had the smallest percentage of passengers involuntarily denied boarding, at 0.05 passengers per 10,000 passengers. Put another way, only one in 200,000 passengers was involuntarily turned away.

Delta flight departs Sea-Tac Airport, Seattle
Hawaiian was No. 2 at 0.09, United was No. 3 at 0.23 followed by Virgin America at 0.28 and SkyWest Airlines at 0.30. All figures are per 10,000 passengers.

SkyWest operates as American Eagle, Alaska Airlines, Delta Connection and United Express.

Worst in the category? Budget carrier Spirit (NASDAQ:SAVE), which denied boarding to 0.82 passengers per 10,000. jetBlue was No. 8 with 0.41 denied boardings, which I find surprising because jetBlue advertises that it does not oversell flights, something virtually every other airline does.

Is it important that your bags get there the same time you do?

You may find it interesting that Spirit topped the list for the lowest percentage of mishandled baggage reports, at 1.61 per 1,000 passengers. Or perhaps you won’t.

Considering that Spirit charges for both checked bags and carry-ons over a very minimal size, one might conclude that fewer people check bags with Spirit than others, leading to fewer claims for mishandled bags. Regardless of the reason(s), jetBlue was second-best with 1.65 reports per 1,000 passengers.

Alaska Air Group (NYSE:ALK) carriers Virgin America and Alaska Airlines were No. 3 and No. 4., respectively, with 1.78 and 1.81 reports per 1,000. Delta was No. 5 on that list, with 1.82 reports per 1,000 passengers.

ExpressJet Airlines had the most mishandled baggage reports, with 3.88 reports filed per 1,000 passengers. ExpressJet operates regional service for the Big Three U.S. carriers.

Travel with a pampered pooch or pussycat?

If your pet qualifies to ride in the cabin with you, either because it is small enough to fit in a carrier or is a service or support dog, great. If not, be aware that United has the worst record when it comes to carrying pets.

In 2017, 18 pets died while in transit and another 13 were injured. In perspective, that’s 2.24 incidents per 10,000 animals transported, so the chances are small but they do exist. Alaska and American just had three pets each either die, emerge injured or be lost; Delta had the same number, but that carrier no longer transports pets in the cargo holds of passenger aircraft. Delta passengers need to ship their furry companions on Delta Cargo.

Like legroom?

If you want the most legroom available in standard economy, go with Virgin America or jetBlue. According to, Virgin American’s standard economy seats have 32 inches of pitch while premium economy seats (called Main Cabin Select) have 38 inches. jetBlue’s planes offer from 32 to 34 inches of pitch in standard economy while its premium economy offerings (Even More Space) range from 37 to 41 inches of pitch.

On the other side of that, all the standard economy seats on all of Spirit's aircraft have a pitch of 28 inches, while Frontier's (NASDAQ:FRNT) seats offer from 28 to 31 inches of pitch. For me, at 6 feet tall, 31 inches is the absolute minimum I can endure, and even at that, my knees are rubbing the seat in front of me.

Virgin America flight leaves SEA

A tight fit is not all that rare; Alaska’s standard economy seats have as little as 31 inches of pitch to as much as 36 inches, depending on the aircraft and its age. (One can expect the older planes that haven’t yet been retrofitted to be more generous, space-wise). Seats on Southwest (NYSE:LUV) range from 31 inches on its 737-700s to 32-33 inches on its 737-800s.

Space aboard American’s narrow-body jets varies widely, with standard economy seats offering as little as 30 inches or as much as 33 inches of legroom, and premium economy (Main Cabin Extra) seats from as little as 33 inches to as much as 40 inches. Best avoided: the Boeing (NYSE:BA) 737-MAX, which has 30 inches of legroom in standard economy and only 33 inches, for which you’ll pay more, in premium economy.

United and Delta are similarly all over the seat-map. The take-away for the traveler is that, unless you can fly Virgin America or jetBlue to your chosen destination, flying any other airline means something of a crap-shoot when it comes to legroom.

Addicted to being on-line?

If so, you’ll need to choose your carrier carefully. Many, though not all, offer in-flight WI-Fi. Some offer it for a fee while other provide it gratis. According to a recent survey, jetBlue and Virgin America have it on all their planes and Delta offers it on 98 percent of its fleet. jetBlue provides it without charge, while the other two add a fee.

Overall, Delta and Virgin America boast the highest connection speeds, which is all well and good, but the bottom line is there’s only one “pipeline” from the plane to the ground, so how good it will be from your seat will depend on a number of factors, including how many of your fellow passengers are also using it, and what they’re trying to download.

So much for the objective; now, on to the subjective.

While things like on-time performance, baggage mishaps, traveling with a pet, and legroom are important – and quantifiable – it’s the subjective things like how an airline treats its passengers that drives many of us to one carrier or another.

My wife loves Southwest, while I loathe it for one simple reason: the cattle call at boarding. I absolutely hate not having an assigned seat, while she is more sanguine about it than I.

Yes, their flight attendants are generally friendlier – and funnier – than others in the industry, and there is a lot to like about checking a bag without a fee and being able to change your ticket without a charge. But that single facet of Southwest’s operation is the reason I avoid it whenever possible.

While it is quantifiable, price is another factor to be considered, though results of a recent poll indicate that U.S travelers are not as price-driven as the airlines would have people – especially regulators – believe. About 60 percent of those who responded to a recent Consumer Reports poll said the main reason for choosing their carrier was it had a flight that best fit their schedule.

Still, a bit of shopping around is prudent.

“No single travel site or airline consistently offers the best deals in all cases,” William McGee, airline consultant for Consumers Union, said.

It’s also wise to look at how many add-on fees and charges the airline you’re considering will tack on to your ticket. Spirit, for example, derives almost half its total revenue from à la carte charges, often creating a dramatic mismatch between the advertised ticket price and what it will actually cost the traveler. In 2015, Wall Street Journal reporter Scott McCartney wrote an article that included a breakdown that showed how ancillary fees, along with standard government fees and taxes, inflated the “$209 fare” to a total cost of more than $484.

Finally, there is the extremely subjective matter of how an airline treats its passengers.

Understandably, that will vary from flight to flight as each flight attendant has his or her own personality, each has good and bad days, etc. Still, an airline’s standard practices may be something you want to consider. Or not.

If being ignored or treated like cattle doesn’t bother you as long as you have a comfortable seat with enough legroom, as on some recent flights I took on jetBlue, then fine. If you want to be fussed over even though you’re in the main cabin, I’ve had decent experiences on Virgin America, Alaska and Delta flights operated by Delta. The F/As on Southwest aren’t bad, either.

My worst recent experience was on a flight operated by Compass Airlines, doing business as Delta Connection. 

One F/A, who was apparently well past burned out, didn’t greet passengers as we got on, turned a deaf ear when we asked her a question in flight, and had her nose in the phone when passengers were deplaning. No, “Have a nice day!” from her. The other F/A, who was at least pleasant, didn’t speak loudly enough or clearly enough to effectively communicate with passengers without being asked to repeat himself.

From where I sit (preferably an aisle seat in premium economy or better), there is no clear winner. There is no one carrier that consistently offers better on-time performance, luggage delivery, legroom, amenities, or best price.

With that said, the next time you see an airline boasting about being named “Best by Teddy Traveler*” or whomever, take that with a grain of salt. If you’re inclined, dig a bit and look for the explanation of those asterisks. If not, bear in mind that it may just be marketing hype.

Editor’s note: I decided to write this article after getting the umpteenth email promoting an organization’s “survey” that named 2018’s best and worst airlines. As I dug into the data, I found several questionable assumptions and some outright flaws which skewed the results rather dramatically. Rather than skewer the survey company, I decided on this (somewhat snarky) look at the various factors surveyors - and travelers - consider.

Visit my main page at for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photos by Carl Dombek
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