As someone who follows the airline industry pretty closely, it seems to me that every month there is a new proclamation of a "Best Airline" — but the title all depends on the criteria, and who is being surveyed. Let's give a look to the 2014 winners, and why they were given the title.
Air Transport World (ATW)
Air Transport World is one of the top trade publications for the airline industry, and announced their 2015 Airline of the Year this morning — Southwest Airlines. ATW cited Southwest's "extraordinary and consistent standards of service, financial performance, safety, and environmental and corporate responsibility." The airline was also favored for achieving its 15% return on invested income target for the first time in 14 years. Southwest is also the only airline in the world to be profitable for 41 straight years, and that's without ever going into bankruptcy, furloughs or layoffs.
2015 will be an interesting year for Southwest, as they continue to add international destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean. However, the airline is also embattled in labor contract negotiations with the Transportation Workers' Union and their Pilots' Union.
Skytrax says their World Airline Awards are "the benchmark of world airline excellence." In their 2014 awards, no U.S. based airline even made their overall top 20. Worldwide, the top 5 spots were Cathay Pacific, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Emirates, and Turkish Airlines. This might not surprise anyone who travels internationally. Even within their North America subcategory, the winner was Air Canada. The top two U.S. airlines were found way down the list at 46 (Virgin America) and 49 (Delta).
Skytrax says they survey travelers from 160 countries to find their winners. Skytrax also rates each airline with up to 5 stars. Six of the seven 5-star airlines are based in Asia, and the seventh is a Middle-East airline: Qatar Airways. Spirit and Ryanair are among the lowest-rated airlines with only two stars. Skytrax says a two-star rating signified "a poor standard of product and/or poor and inconsistent standards of Staff Service delivery in the Onboard or Airport environments."
Virgin America won several awards this year. Photo by AeroIcarus (Flickr / CC Commercial License)
Forbes ranked America's best airlines by using Department of Transportation stats, though not really weighing the customer experience whatsoever. The criteria included on-time performance, denied boardings per 10,000 passengers, mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, and customer complaints per 100,000 passengers. Their top five came out in this order: Virgin America, jetBlue, Hawaiian, Delta and Alaska. Personally, I always sort of feel like Hawaiian cheats their way in there, because the great weather there keeps delays to a minimum, which boosts on-time performance. Also passengers don't complain, because who isn't happy when they're on their way to Hawaii?
J.D. Power's North American Airline Satisfaction Study ranks airlines annually on the following seven factors, in order of importance: cost and fees; in-flight services; boarding/deplaning/baggage, flight crew, aircraft, check-in, and reservation. Alaska Airlines was given the title of Best Traditional Airline, for the seventh straight year. JetBlue won the Best Low-Cost carrier award, for the tenth straight year. J.D. Power said overall satisfaction with airlines is at a record high, with a score of 712 out of a possible 1,000 points. If you look at that like a test score, a 71 is a low C.
The Freddie Awards
The Freddie Awards reward airlines for their frequent flyer programs. They're given out by InsideFlyer Magazine, and named for Sir Freddie Laker. Laker was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, for his contributions to British commercial aviation. This year, American Airlines won Program of the Year, and Best Elite Program (for the Americas), while Southwest won Best Customer Service.
Airline Passenger Experience (APEX) Magazine
Virgin America cleaned up at this year's Airline Passenger Experience award ceremony. I was in attendance for this event, back in September, in Anaheim, California. Virgin America won awards for Best Overall Passenger Experience (in the whole world) as well as Best In Region, Best Inflight Video, Best Ground Experience, and Best Cabin Ambience for their famous "mood lighting." It should be noted that the APEX president, Alfie Veretto works for Virgin America.
Do you have any airline loyalty, or do you just go with whoever is cheapest or most convenient? Do you go out of your way to fly with a certain airline, and why? Please share with us in the comments below.
Top photo courtesy of Southwest Airlines
Paul Thompson is a aviation journalist with over 13 years of experience working in the airline industry, who maintains the website Flight Club for Jalopnik.com. You can contact Paul to submit story ideas, your own "Plane Porn" photos, and comments regarding this or any other aviation topic via email at Paul@Jalopnik.com