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These Are the Airlines That Actually Care About Customer Service

There will probably never be one carrier that everybody agrees has the best airline customer service, but there are plenty that travelers despise for their lack thereof. Sometimes it feels like certain airlines outright dislike travelers, and it’s hard to get a bad customer experience out of your head.

But it’s not just the niceties: Different travelers value different airline customer service features—some like the “hard product” factors like service inclusions, some prefer a high on-time service performance, others note and judge upon the general attitude of airline personnel and their responsiveness to passenger needs.

Nevertheless, when you look at the various surveys and compilations that rate all of these factors, the same few airlines seem to rise to the top of just about every scoring, while the same few reliably sink to the bottom.

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How to Measure Airlines for Customer Service

I looked at five different scoring reports to create my own definitive ranking of the best airlines for customer service. That’s because they typically measure different things: Some concentrate solely on U.S. airlines while others include worldwide lines, and most evaluate different scoring factors. (Although some scores include the regional lines such as those that are part of larger airlines, I have left them out.)

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) uses among the most rigorous methodologies to develop customer satisfaction ratings across dozens of industries in the U.S., including airlines. ACSI rates Alaska, Southwest, and JetBlue as the top three airlines (in a virtual tie, at scores of 79 to 80). Among the giant legacies, Delta outscores American by a bit and United by a lot. Spirit and Frontier took the bottom positions.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) publishes monthly Air Travel Consumer Reports that focus mainly on operational performance rather than satisfaction. But those reports do include tabulations of the number of passenger complaints (and the number per 100,000 travelers) that presumably reflect customer satisfaction failures of one sort or another. For the period of January to September 2019, Southwest recorded by far the fewest complaints, at 0.35 per 100,000, followed by Alaska and Delta, both at 0.51, Hawaiian at 0.83, and JetBlue at 0.99. All others recorded 1.00 to 2.00, with Frontier (2.61) and Spirit (2.97) well below all others.

J.D. Power, like ACSI, routinely publishes composite customer satisfaction ratings for a broad range of industries including airlines. Top scoring North American lines in the latest 2019 report are JetBlue and Southwest, tied at 817, followed by Alaska at 801. Delta outscored American, WestJet, Air Canada, and United, with Spirit and Frontier at the bottom. Power also scores foreign-based lines flying to and from North America, with top ratings to Turkish, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, followed by Delta, KLM, and ANA, with American, Air Canada, China Eastern, and United at the bottom.

Skytrax continues to generate a lot of ink and pixels with its annual worldwide airline ratings, including a much-disputed “world’s best” airline list. Although many in the industry criticize Skytrax’s methodology, few deny its impact. In North America, Skytrax rates the big lines, from the top down: Air Canada, JetBlue, Delta, Southwest, Alaska, WestJet, Air Transat, United, American, and Porter. Internationally, nine of the top 10 Skytrax lines are from the Pacific and Gulf regions, with Lufthansa the lone outrider. This has been the case as long as I can remember; this year, the top lines are Qatar, Singapore, ANA, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, EVA, Hainan, Qantas, Lufthansa, and Thai.

TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) compiles composite airline scores and also publishes component scores specific to customer service. Currently, for customer service, TripAdvisor contributors collectively rate Alaska and Southwest at 4.5 (out of five) Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Porter, and WestJet at four; Air Canada, Air Transat, Allegiant, American, and United at 3.5; Frontier and Spirit at three. Among international lines, TripAdvisor lines up with most other sources: For overall excellence, Air New Zealand, Qatar, and Singapore score 4.5; Air New Zealand, ANA, Azul, Emirates, and Jet2 score four balls, and Air France and Air Transat come in at 3.5.

The Overall Best Airlines for Customer Service

Overall, the following airlines (in no particular order) tend to do a better job than other North American lines at satisfying customers:

  • Alaska
  • JetBlue
  • Southwest

Alaska takes care to treat its customers well, JetBlue combines good treatment with a top hard product, and travelers love Southwest’s free-baggage and no-fee cancellation policies as well as its outstanding staff. It’s hard to beat these three airlines.

But Delta comes close on many scorings. The airline is the clear leader among the three giant legacy lines. Delta’s reputation in the industry supports this conclusion: Just about everyone in the business believes Delta runs a better operation than its giant competitors. American and especially United have a lot of catching-up to do, and generally some pretty bad reviews when it comes to airline customer service.

The Overall Worst Airlines for Customer Service

Among the very-low-fare lines, these two are just about everybody’s nomination for worst airlines:

  • Frontier
  • Spirit

Allegiant, which used to be in the same boat, seems to be getting its act together a bit with its fleet renewal. In Canada, WestJet seems to out-perform Air Canada and Air Transat in most comparisons.

The International Airline Customer Service Paradox

Among the international lines, my take is that there’s a huge bias toward the Gulf and Pacific lines in almost all survey-based ratings. And there’s a paradox for international flights anyways: On any line, passenger service is better on long-haul flights than on short hauls.

Travelers are most likely to have flown the Gulf and Pacific lines on long haul flights and the domestic lines on short-haul flights. But the good news is that no matter which line you choose, you’re likely to have a better experience on a long flight than on a short one.

More from SmarterTravel:

Editor’s note: SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon contributed to this story.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

By Ed Perkins

A nationally recognized reporter, writer, and consumer advocate, Ed Perkins focuses on how travelers can find the best deals and avoid scams.

He is the author of "Online Travel" (2000) and "Business Travel: When It's Your Money" (2004), the first step-by-step guide specifically written for small business and self-employed professional travelers. He was also the co-author of the annual "Best Travel Deals" series from Consumers Union.

Perkins' advice for business travelers is featured on MyBusinessTravel.com, a website devoted to helping small business and self-employed professional travelers find the best value for their travel dollars.

Perkins was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, one of the country's most influential travel publications, from which he retired in 1998. He has also written for Business Traveller magazine (London).

Perkins' travel expertise has led to frequent television appearances, including ABC's "Good Morning America" and "This Week with David Brinkley," "The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather," CNN, and numerous local TV and radio stations.

Before editing Consumer Reports Travel Letter, Perkins spent 25 years in travel research and consulting with assignments ranging from national tourism development strategies to the design of computer-based tourism models.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, Perkins lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife.

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