The Best U.S. Airline? Here’s the Consensus Pick

Is there one carrier that can claim, indisputably, the title of “Best U.S. Airline”? A look at five recent surveys suggests there might indeed be a consensus winner.

Airline Quality Rating

The annual Airline Quality Rating study, a joint undertaking by professors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical and Wichita State universities, incorporates 15 elements in four areas of airline performance: mishandled bags, on-time arrivals, denied boardings, and customer complaints. The report synthesizes data compiled by the DOT for its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, and assigns U.S. airlines a higher or lower AQR (Airline Quality Rating) accordingly.

Applying those criteria, the study ranked U.S. airlines as follows:

  1. Alaska
  2. Delta
  3. Virgin America
  4. JetBlue
  5. Hawaiian
  6. Southwest
  7. SkyWest
  8. United
  9. American
  10. ExpressJet
  11. Spirit
  12. Frontier


TripAdvisor’s best-airline list is based on reader feedback, specifically airline reviews submitted between February 2016 and February 2017.

Among U.S. airlines, readers favored Delta over other major airlines. Among “Mid-Size & Low Cost Airlines,” a rather awkward category, JetBlue was top-ranked.

SmarterTravel Editors’ Choice

For its 2017 Editors’ Choice rankings, SmarterTravel considered the seven factors “most likely to affect the average traveler”: hard product, soft product, reliability, scope, fees, complaints, frequent flyer program. Each factor was assigned a weight, according to its relative importance, and the contenders were then rated accordingly.

The top five:

  1. Alaska
  2. JetBlue
  3. Southwest
  4. Delta
  5. United

The Points Guy’s Best and Worst Airlines

For The Points Guy’s contribution to the best-airline studies, 10 criteria were considered, falling into four general categories: price, convenience, headaches, and extras.

The top five:

  1. Alaska
  2. United
  3. Virgin America
  4. JetBlue
  5. American

Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards

In the domestic airline category, Travel + Leisure readers rated airlines according to cabin comfort, service, food, customer service, and value.

  1. Virgin America
  2. JetBlue
  3. Hawaiian
  4. Alaska
  5. Southwest

Best of the Best

Many surveys, many rating criteria, many outcomes. Are there any airlines that rate highly across the surveys?

As it turns out, there is one airline that is top rated in three of the five surveys, and ranked in the top five in a fourth. Alaska Airlines. If there is a consensus favorite, that’s it.

For a runner-up, JetBlue placed in the top five in all five surveys, making it a lock for second place and a strong contender for the top spot.

Reader Reality Check

What are your choices for the best U.S. airlines?

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and almost that long writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

This article first appeared on, where Tim is Editor-at-Large.


  1. Jason Brandt Lewis says

    @Tim —> First of all, in your link to TripAdvisor above, I do not see a reference to Delta, but rather in the Top Ten of the WORLD’S airlines, I see jetBlue coming in 4th and Alaska, 9th.

    I calculated the overall results with two modifications (ignoring TripAdvisor because their Top Ten list is international and only contains two US-based airlines; and only taking the top five from AQR in order to be consistent), and assigned 5 points for a 1st place vote, 4 points for a 2nd, etc.,down to a single point for a 5th place ranking — then totaled the results over the four lists (AQR, SmartTraveler, TPG, T+L). The results I came up with are as follows:

    1. Alaska, with 17 points across all four surveys (avg. 4.25 points over all four).
    2. JetBlue, with 12 points across all four surveys (avg. 3.0. — a full 1.25 points lower).
    — Virgin America, with 11 points from only THREE surveys (but avg. 2.75 over all four, lagging behind
    JetBlue by only 1/4 of a point). I would suggest statistically these two carriers are tied.

    4. Delta, with 6 points in only two surveys (avg. 1.50 over all four).
    — United with 5 points in only two surveys (avg. 1.25 over all four).
    — Hawaiian and
    — Southwest, each with 4 points in only two surveys (avg. 1.0 over all four). I would suggest these
    four airlines are statistically tied.

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