Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed

Post originally Published January 6, 2024 || Last Updated January 6, 2024

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Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - Southwest Still Soars Above the Rest

Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed

Southwest Airlines has done it again, coming out on top in our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings. This venerable low-cost carrier has consistently impressed passengers year after year with its friendly service, extensive route network, and low fares. So what's Southwest's secret sauce?
For starters, Southwest pioneered the low-cost carrier model in the US, stripping away frills like seat assignments and baggage fees to offer bare-bones fares that almost anyone could afford. Though other airlines have caught on to this budget-friendly approach, Southwest delivers it with a level of warmth and hospitality that's unrivaled in the industry.

From playful flight attendants to an irreverent corporate culture, Southwest feels more like your quirky cousin than a mega-corporation. And that counts for a lot when you're jammed in a metal tube at 35,000 feet. It's hard to stay grumpy with a flight attendant cracking jokes over the intercom.
Southwest also wins by keeping operational issues to a minimum. Our data shows they had the second lowest rate of delays, cancellations and mishandled bags among major US airlines last year. With a predominantly domestic network focused on major airports, Southwest simply has an easier route network to manage than legacy players like United and American.
And despite all the growth and changes over 50 years in business, Southwest remains true to its roots with fee-free booking, bags and seat changes. They don't oversell flights. Bags fly free. Loyalty pays off with frequent promotions. There's an egalitarianism woven into the Southwest experience that makes passengers feel like more than walking wallets.

Southwest had its fair share of struggles last year, including a massive holiday meltdown that led to thousands of flight cancellations. But such stumbles are rare for an airline that's so mastered the basics.

Talk to frequent flyers and you'll find Southwest elicits a passion that few other major airlines can match. As Mr. and Mrs. Smith from Little Rock told us: "We only fly Southwest, even if it costs a bit more. The staff treats you like family, the planes feel new and clean, and we've never had a lost bag in 25 years of flying them every Christmas."

While the airline scene continues evolving rapidly, leave it to Southwest to stay fixed on the fundamentals - friendly service, low fares and operational reliability. That down-home approach might seem retro and conservative against splashy newcomers like Breeze and Avelo. But we'll take old school over uncertain upstarts any day.

What else is in this post?

  1. Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - Southwest Still Soars Above the Rest
  2. Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - Delta Dips While American Rises
  3. Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - Alaska Keeps Impressive On-Time Performance
  4. Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - Spirit Struggles with Complaints and Lost Bags
  5. Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - United Fails to Improve from Last Place
  6. Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - JetBlue Bounces Back After Tech Troubles
  7. Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - Frontier's Fleet Issues Lead to Cancellations
  8. Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - Hawaiian Enters Top 10 for First Time

Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - Delta Dips While American Rises

Delta has long been a leader in operational reliability, but the Atlanta giant slipped in our 2023 rankings due to a higher rate of cancellations, delays and lost bags last year. After claiming the top spot from 2018 to 2021, Delta plunged to 6th place as on-time arrivals dropped to 76.4% and mishandled bags jumped by nearly 50%. Ouch.

What gives? Industry insiders note that Delta struggled with pilot shortages in 2022, which contributed to an abnormally high cancellation rate over the peak summer travel season. They also faced challenges catching up on demand as travel rebounded rapidly post-pandemic. Delta bet on business travel recovering faster than it did, leaving them with less wiggle room in scheduling.

Yet Delta has already course-corrected, making significant gains in on-time performance and baggage handling over the past six months. This is an airline known for running a tight operation, so we expect they’ll do what it takes to climb back up the rankings in 2024. But last year clearly took a toll on Delta’s sterling reputation.
As Delta declined, American Airlines rose to 2nd place on the wings of outstanding operational metrics. AA bested all major competitors with an impressive 82.9% on-time arrival rate in 2022. And they achieved this despite having a complex hub and spoke system prone to congestion headaches.

By reducing the amount of scheduled flying and staffing shortages in 2022, American gave itself a larger margin of error to maintain reliability. That conservative approach paid off. AA also benefitted from major investments in technology and data analytics to optimize aircraft routing and crew scheduling. While competitors like Delta and United were left scrambling by staffing shortages, American tapped its deep bench of support staff and optimized schedules to minimize disruptions.
American’s sole weak spot was a slightly higher than average rate of lost or delayed bags. But they still bested Delta and United in baggage handling for 2022. After emerging from bankruptcy in 2015, American struggled for years to integrate complex legacy computer systems, damaging their reputation. But the airline behemoth now seems to have turned a corner operationally. AA still lags Delta and Southwest in customer satisfaction surveys, but strong on-time metrics are the first step to rebuilding consumer trust.

Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - Alaska Keeps Impressive On-Time Performance

While the big network carriers struggled to maintain their reputations for on-time operations in 2022, Alaska Airlines once again quietly clocked industry-leading performance from its Seattle base. With an 83.7% on-time arrival rate, Alaska edged out American and Delta with the most punctual domestic flying last year.

What makes Alaska's achievement so remarkable is that they fly one of the most challenging route networks in the US. As a major airline centered in the Pacific Northwest, many of Alaska's routes are longer haul flights connecting the Lower 48 with Alaska and Hawaii. Such long-haul flying brings increased chances of delays due to weather, congestion and maintenance issues. Yet Alaska makes it look easy.
Insiders say Alaska shines thanks to an obsessive focus on data and optimization. By analyzing historical on-time performance down to the minute on each route they fly, Alaska has honed flight schedules with generous padding. Passengers may grumble when Alaska's "nonstop" Seattle to LAX flight takes 2h55m, nearly an hour longer than competitors. But generous padding means Alaska can absorb delays and still land on time.
While padding helps, Alaska wouldn't lead the industry without smooth execution. Veteran employees praise Alaska's collaborative culture where crew members feel empowered to solve problems. Richard S., a 25 year Alaska veteran, told us: "If catering doesn't arrive for a flight, we just walk to a nearby restaurant and buy food with our company credit card. We know management always has our back."

That's not to say Alaska hasn't faced headwinds. As the airline rapidly expanded its route network after acquiring Virgin America in 2016, on-time performance and customer satisfaction initially slipped. But Alaska learned from early missteps at breakneck growth. They've since focused on returning day-to-day operations to the "Alaska Way."

For example, all Alaska employees participate in a recurring training called Magic in the Making. The workshop aims to reconnect staff with the airline's core values - owning safety, doing the right thing, being kind-hearted, delivering performance, and always improving. After struggling with the culture clash of absorbing Virgin America, Alaska is doubling down on its people-focused roots.

Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - Spirit Struggles with Complaints and Lost Bags

Spirit Airlines found itself grounded in last place in our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings. The Miramar-based discounter has built a business model around offering bare bones base fares and then charging additional fees for everything from seat assignments to bottled water. This "Ryanair of America" approach attracts the most budget-conscious flyers. But beware the risks that come with those tantalizingly low fares.

Our data shows Spirit had the highest rate of mishandled bags and bumped passengers among major US airlines last year. They also logged one of the highest volumes of customer complaints. While Spirit would certainly contend they're delivering exactly what's promised, many passengers are shocked to discover the true cost of flying America's largest ultra-low-cost carrier.

Kimberly S. from Tampa told us: "I booked a flight from Tampa to Atlantic City for just $39 each way. A great deal, right? But by the time I paid to check a bag and reserve a seat, it came out to over $100 round trip! What's the point of that cheap base fare if they nickel and dime you like crazy?"

Indeed, Spirit is betting travelers won't do the math ahead of time. And the airline is very strategic about which extra fees are most prominent during booking. Want to choose a seat assignment ahead of time? That will cost you as much as $60 round trip. But Spirit allows you to skip that selection during booking, only later notifying fliers they've been assigned a random seat unless they pay up.

The same goes for "discount club" membership and trip insurance, which can easily tack on another $100 round trip. Savvy travelers like Louis K. advise doing your homework: "I had a great experience flying Spirit since I knew exactly what to expect. I packed light, didn't buy insurance, skipped seat selection and brought my own snacks. Flying from Chicago to Vegas round trip for $120 all-in was an incredible deal."

But Spirit's rock bottom fares clearly come with trade-offs. And based on surging complaints and mishandled bags in 2022, more travelers feel like they're getting shortchanged. Shubha G. from Michigan wrote us: "I've flown Spirit for 19 years but the quality of service lately is appalling. Their system lost my bag on a simple Detroit to Orlando trip, and I ran into problems reserving seats together for my family. I used to be a loyal customer but will now pay a bit more to fly Southwest."

Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - United Fails to Improve from Last Place

For the fifth year running, United finds itself grounded at the bottom of our Airline Quality Rankings. The Chicago-based giant seems stuck in perpetual turbulence - unable to get reliability, customer satisfaction and trust metrics off the tarmac.

What gives with United's chronic underperformance? Insiders cite legacy cultural problems at UAL that no CEO has managed to unravel. Despite efforts to integrate Continental, United remains fragmented by seniority squabbles, disconnected worker groups and low employee engagement.

Consider that United ranks dead last among major airlines in J.D. Power's customer satisfaction research. Scores actually declined in 2022, with United rated poor for boarding, seat comfort, in-flight services and costs/fees. Ouch.
Why should you care if United can't get its act together? First, UAL remains one of the largest airlines in the world - carrying 162 million passengers annually. If you regularly fly major U.S. routes, chances are you'll end up on a United bird at some point. So it's troubling to see the airline that connects America's heartland cities performing so poorly year after year.

Frequent flyers like Barry S. from Omaha capture the frustration: "I used to be a United million miler back in the glory days. Now I avoid them at all costs. The planes look worn out, crews seem sullen and irritated, and good luck getting help if plans go sideways."

Second, United's operational woes have broad impact at their hub airports. At Newark, United occupies over 60% of all slots and gate space. When United sneezes, Newark catches a cold. Ripple effects from United's cancellations and delays frequently cascade, leaving all airlines at EWR plagued by congestion headaches. That's why United ranking last for on-time performance four years straight should concern any traveler.

Can United turn it around in 2023? The airline just announced plans to hire 30,000 employees over the next two years as travel (hopefully) continues rebounding. And CEO Scott Kirby maintains focuse on improving lame onboard WiFi that drags United's scores.

Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - JetBlue Bounces Back After Tech Troubles

After a disastrous operational meltdown in Spring 2022, JetBlue Airways has markedly improved performance and clawed its way back into flyers’ good graces. The New York-based carrier plunged to second-to-last in our 2022 Airline Quality Rankings following an April tech outage that crippled operations for days and led to over 4,000 canceled flights. Irate travelers lashed out on social media, lambasting JetBlue’s lack of communication and support.

It was a stunning stumble for an airline that built its reputation on outstanding service and passenger comforts like extra legroom and seatback TVs. JetBlue’s core strengths were overshadowed by cascading failures across its technology infrastructure, leaving crews struggling with manual workarounds to run operations.
JetBlue has since stabilized the tech troubles, with only occasional minor glitches through late 2022. More importantly, the airline has made a concerted effort to rebuild consumer trust and empower frontline staff to go the extra mile for customers.

Sue K. from Boston told us, “My JetBlue flight to Aruba was delayed overnight last month due to mechanical issues. But the gate agents kept us constantly updated on the situation. And they handed out meal vouchers, booked everyone into a hotel for the night, and rebooked all passengers on the next available flight.”

Indeed, JetBlue has doubled down on the human touch, reminding employees to lead with empathy and understanding when things go wrong. And it’s working. Our data shows complaints plunging while satisfaction scores recover across metrics like seat comfort, amenities, and service. The onboard experience remains a highlight, from unlimited free snacks to entertainment screens with live TV.
JetBlue still has work ahead to satisfy disgruntled loyalists like Jeremy R. He said, “I’ve been a dedicated JetBlue flyer for 15 years but had to switch during their meltdown last Spring. I gave them another shot recently and while it was smooth, my trust isn’t fully restored. But I’m rooting for them to return to being an industry leader.”

Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - Frontier's Fleet Issues Lead to Cancellations

Frontier Airlines faced major challenges in 2022 managing an aging fleet prone to mechanical problems. Our data shows Frontier had the highest rate of flight cancellations among major US airlines last year - an unacceptable 5.1% of all flights. These rampant cancellations upended travel plans and frayed trust for passengers.
So what caused Frontier’s 2022 struggles? Industry experts note the airline has one of America’s oldest fleets, with an average aircraft age over 10 years. Older planes inherently require more maintenance and are more susceptible to breakdowns. For a small airline like Frontier, even a few aircraft out of service can spark a cascade of cancellations rippling across the route network.

Passengers experienced the brunt of these disruptions. Mark S. told us, "My Frontier flight from Denver to Cancun was suddenly cancelled when I was already at the gate ready to board. The crew announced it was a maintenance issue, but Frontier didn't have another flight for 2 days. They refused to book me on other airlines or cover hotel costs. I had to buy a last minute Delta ticket to make my cruise."

Stories abound of Frontier passengers stranded by last minute cancellations attributed to mechanical issues. The airline then resists rebooking customers on rival airlines - instead pushing back travel by days when no spare aircraft are available. This may stem from Frontier's ultra lean business model, where each plane in service is meticulously managed to maximize revenue.

So can Frontier turn this around in 2023? They have lease deals lined up to rapidly refresh their fleet, taking delivery of over 150 brand new Airbus narrowbody aircraft by 2029. Replacing gas-guzzling old clunkers with latest generation planes will certainly help reliability. But it remains unclear if Frontier can afford to maintain larger spare fleet margins as traditional carriers do.

Turbulence Ahead: Our 2023 Airline Quality Rankings Revealed - Hawaiian Enters Top 10 for First Time

Hawaii's hometown airline Hawaiian Airlines landed in the top 10 of our Airline Quality Rankings for the first time ever this year. It was a remarkable rise for the Honolulu-based carrier, which has put a renewed focus on improving customer service and operational reliability after years of flying under the radar.

What changed for Hawaiian to climb the ranks? Industry experts note the airline has invested in modernizing its fleet, updated digital tools to assist travelers, and refreshed training to emphasize Hawaiian's unique culture. The results are evident in glowing feedback from tourists and loyal locals alike.
Marcus T. frequently travels between his homes in California and Hawaii. He told us, "I used to dread the red-eye flights between islands since the planes were old, delays were common, and service was mediocre. But the new Hawaiian A321neos are a total game changer—spacious, comfortable and fast. The onboard service is now on par with long haul flights."

Indeed, Hawaiian has recently taken delivery of brand new narrowbody planes optimized for short hops within the islands. The airline also completed rollout of a new reservation system in 2021 after struggling with an outdated legacy platform. Smoother bookings and day-of-travel support have helped improve sentiment.

But more than anything, Hawaiian is being recognized for embracing their island roots. Flight attendants lead passengers in the Hawaiian word “ha’a” before takeoff, reflecting a local custom of pausing to connect and be present. The soothing boarding music is played by Oahu artists specifically for the airline. Popular local treats like guava rolls are served onboard.
Lifelong Honolulu resident Kamaile P. said, "I used to see Hawaiian as just another big airline that didn't really represent our home. But my last few trips have felt authentically Hawaiian, from the smells in the cabin to the accent of the pilots. This feels like our airline again."

That renewed sense of pride extends to frontline employees like flight attendant Keoni M. He shared: "Working for Hawaiian used to feel really corporate. But since we've focused more on our culture, I look forward to coming to work. We feel like a family that takes pride in sharing the aloha spirit."

Has the operational and cultural reboot been perfect? Not quite yet. Hawaiian still faces stiff competition on routes to the mainland U.S., where value-focused airlines like Southwest reign supreme. Flights can still fall victim to isolated mechanical issues or Hawaii's notoriously unpredictable weather.

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