When flying in Australia, you only have a choice of four major airlines (and often less depending on your destination). Choosing airlines in the United States is much more difficult -- which is where this guide can help. We've ranked US airlines based on their reliability, customer experience and propensity to charge extra fees.
One note: if you're flying from Australia to a US destination other than the handful of cities which have direct flights (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu and Dallas), we generally recommend choosing an airline than offers a connected/codeshare booking to that initial destination. The hassles involved with luggage otherwise aren't worth it. For longer trips to the US with purely domestic hops, knowing which airlines offer good options can be very helpful.
We took a cue from Business Insiders' best international airlines list from last year, and tweaked it a bit to focus on US airlines and include more criteria. Our ranking system is based on three critical factors: a comfortable experience with the airline (from cabin seating on the plane to ease of making reservations), the airline's history of on-time performance, and the number of additional fees that can be tacked onto your tickets.
For airline experience, we used SkyTrax's rating, which evaluates airlines on a one- to five-star system. Among SkyTrax's criteria are check-in experience (at an airline's "home base" airport), delay and incident handling, cabin seating and cleanliness, in-flight entertainment, onboard catering, and cabin staff service. These are rated by relative importance, with staff service and cabin seating weighed more importantly than, say, airline magazines and ticket counter quality.
For on-time performance, we checked the airline scorecards from FlightStats (data from September 15, 2014 to November 15, 2014). Instead of just looking at per cent of flights on time, though, we also considered per cent of flights that were excessively late (delays of 45 minutes or more) and per cent of flights cancelled or diverted.
And for total additional fees, we referred to this 2013 analysis by 24/7 Wall Street using Airfarewatchdog.com's survey of fees. The analysis totalled the amount a passenger would pay for the minimum fee in 14 fee categories, which includes costs for additional checked bags, overweight bags, flight change fees, booking fees, and food and drink costs.
For each of these three factors, we calculated the indices to compare each airline against the others, and then averaged the scores to get the ranking below (an index of 100 is average; a higher index is better). (We also provide information below on the airlines' overall customer service ratings, as noted by the 2014 American Customer Satisfaction Index from ACSI and Department of Transportation's report on customer complaints, but because not all airlines were scored individually on these reports, we couldn't incorporate them into our ranking system.)
How To Use This List
The airlines are scored from best to worst, but, as you know, airlines' coverage varies widely. Many of the top airlines only fly to and from limited destinations. So when you're booking a flight, search for the route you want and look for the airlines in this order. You might not end up with the top-ranked airlines, but at least you'll end up with the best available to you.
Without further ado, here are the rankings, from best to worst.
1. Virgin America
Airline Experience Index: 130 On-Time Performance Index: 102 Fees Index: 123 Total: 118
Like JetBlue, Virgin America gets a big boost from its stellar airline experience rating (those mood lights, friendly service, and roomier than average seats go a long way). There's much else to like above Virgin, though, not the least of which is lower than average fees, including just $US25 per checked bag and no charge for booking a flight in person. Plus, don't you just want to fly with an airline that makes dancing safety videos?
2. Alaska Airlines
Airline Experience Index: 97 On-Time Performance Index: 101 Fees Index: 143 Total: 114
Similarly, if you're flying somewhere on Alaska Airlines' route, you probably won't regret its low-cost fees -- the least amount of fees among the airlines (just $US20 for your first and second bags). The airline also has the least number of complaints with the DOT.
3. Allegiant Air
Airline Experience Index: 97 On-Time Performance Index: 109 Fees Index: 134 Total: 113
Allegiant is a smaller airline that flies very specific routes (mostly to the south), but it's worth a look if you're going somewhere it travels. Not only do they have among the lowest fees of the bunch, Allegiant has the highest on-time performance scores, with 90% of flights on time and only 1% of flights excessively late (remember, the average is 8%).
Airline Experience Index: 130 On-Time Performance Index: 96 Fee Index: 109 Total: 112
JetBlue edges out Southwest with its 4 out of 5 stars rating for airline experience from Skytrax -- matched only by Virgin America for this award. Otherwise, JetBlue is neck and neck with Southwest for on-time performance (read: it could use some work), but total additional fees are a bit higher and are destined to increase as well, now that the company plans on charging for checked bags. JetBlue has the highest customer satisfaction as ranked by ACSI, though that might change too in the near future.
5. Southwest Airlines
Airline Experience Index: 97 On-Time Performance Index: 99 Fee Index: 126 Total: 107
Despite its very low fees (no change fees! free checked bag!), Southwest's on-time performance is still below average -- at 71% of flights on time, it's tied with Spirit Airlines and JetBlue. It also has a slightly above average history of excessively late flights, and Skytrax only gave Southwest the average 3-star rating given to most of the other airlines. Still, Southwest is among the airlines with the fewest DOT complaints (although according to the DOT it has the highest rate of baggage incidents).
6. Frontier Airlines
Airline Experience Index: 97 On-Time Performance Index: 99 Fee Index: 126 Total: 107
If we were able to incorporate ACSI scores in the total (we didn't because ACSI only gives one average score for many of the smaller airlines), Frontier Airlines might have been rated worse than American, United, and US Air. Not only does Frontier have sub-par on-time performance, The Department of Transportations' air travel consumer report for January to September 2014, Frontier had the most number of complaints of the airlines with data on them -- more than twice the average number of complaints per 100,000 passengers. (It also has an above-average number of baggage mishandling reports.) It does better than the others in the bottom half because fees aren't as terrible in some cases as you might expect -- the airline doesn't charge for booking on the phone or in person, both the first and second checked bags are just $US20, and additional bags are lower than most airlines at $US50.
7. United Airlines
Airline Experience Index: 97 On-Time Performance Index: 97 Fee Index: 85 Total: 93
United Airlines only rises above the other airlines at the bottom for its slightly lower total additional fees. Otherwise, United actually fares a bit worse than American Airlines when it comes to on-time performance, with 2% of its flights cancelled or diverted (the average for the airlines is 1%). Overall customer satisfaction, as rated by the 2014 American Customer Satisfaction Index from ACSI, is also below average -- along with American Airlines and US Airways.
8. (Tie) Delta Airlines
Airline Experience Index: 97 On-Time Performance Index: 102 Fees Index: 70 Total: 90
Delta's on-time performance is actually above average across these airlines, but high fees ($US754 compared to the average $US579) drag its rank down. Also, it's far from the worst airline, but enough customer horror stories and snafus keep Delta from being the beloved, "most trusted" airline it might want to be.
8. (Tie) Hawaiian Airlines
Airline Experience Index: 97 On-Time Performance Index: 102 Fees Index: 68 Total: 90
Hawaiian Airlines' main issue is those additional fees (the third highest here) -- that's mostly because if you're travelling between the US mainland and the islands, there's a $US150 change fee, compared to the $US30 change fee if you're flying interisland. The airline gets middling marks otherwise.
9. US Airways
Airline Experience Index: 97 On-Time Performance Index: 98 Fees Index: 63 Total: 86
US Airways' on-time performance and customer satisfaction ratings are nearly identical to now-merged carrier American Airlines, giving its parent a run for their money when it comes to abysmal airline service. Like the other legacy airlines, added fees are steep -- more than double that of Southwest's.
10. (Tie) American Airlines
Airline Experience Index: 97 On-Time Performance Index: 98 Fees Index: 55 Total: 83
Below average on-time performance, above average excessively late performance, and below average customer satisfaction place American Airlines right up there at the bottom with Spirit Airlines. It doesn't help that American Airlines' total fees add up to the highest among other carriers. (That said, many Australians will end up using it because of its alliance with Qantas.)
10. (Tie) Spirit Airlines
Airline Experience Index: 65 On-Time Performance Index: 96 Fees Index: 88 Total: 83
No surprise, right? Spirit Airlines, time and again, gets called out as the worst of the worst airlines, thanks to outrageous fees and customer horror stories. The numbers don't lie here either. In addition to being the only domestic airline rated 2 out of 5 by Skytrax for airline experience, Spirit was only on-time 71% of the time -- tied with Southwest and Jet Blue for last place in this contest -- and it was excessively late 12% of the time -- 50% more often than the average airline. So not only do you have to pay for every single little thing (even carry-on bags!) when you fly Spirit, for that privilege you might not even get to your destination on time.