With the economy beginning to reopen and COVID-19 vaccinations continuing to trend upward, cabin fever is giving way to wanderlust, and people are starting to make travel plans. As a result, airlines are reaping the rewards, with over 80% of consumers saying they plan to travel this year.
But which airline is going to give travelers the best experience when they return to the air? While you can take the carriers’ word for it, why not check in with actual consumers to see what they have to say on the matter?
To find out which airlines are producing the best travel experiences, ConsumerAffairs turned to our own review-driven data. After all, if someone really likes -- or hates -- a product or service, they’re more likely to tell their story.
Southwest comes out on top
According to consumers posting reviews at ConsumerAffairs, Southwest Airlines came out as the clear winner in the first quarter of 2021. The budget airline cautiously added more flights, deployed more aircraft, and brought back furloughed staff. Those efforts have paid off handsomely in the review department.
Southwest earned five-star reviews 72.9% of the time during the first three months of the year. On the other end of the ratings measuring stick, it only received one-star reviews 8.3% of the time, the same percentage as its three-star reviews.
One of the consumers giving Southwest a five-star review was Jennifer, from Rockford, Illinois.
“I hadn’t flown in years, so I was a little anxious, and on top of coronavirus, we had to sit accordingly, and I have extra weight on me so it was hard to sit in a seat with minimal legroom for 2 hours!” she wrote in her ConsumerAffairs post. “But the airline attendees were fantastic, they just went on doing everything normally and catering to all of our needs. I felt very relaxed with them showing us they were in charge and assured of our flight! And the trip home was even better!”
All told, based on 1,685 ratings submitted in the last year on ConsumerAffairs, Southwest earns just shy of an overall four-star rating.
Delta Airlines and Alaska Airlines were neck and neck for the second spot in our reviewers’ overall opinion. Delta’s five-star reviews made up 52.2% of its total, with Alaska Airlines just a hair shy of that at 52.1%.
But when four-star reviews are added to the mix, Delta takes off and leaves all other airlines in the dust. Delta’s four-star reviews made up 20.4% of its total reviews, while Alaska Airlines’ four-star reviews accounted for 17.3% of its total.
Taking into account the 1,764 ratings consumers submitted to ConsumerAffairs about Delta in the last year, it earns an overall four-star rating. While the total number of ratings submitted for Alaska Airlines is considerably smaller (474), the love that reviewers gave them was just as strong as Delta’s customers, earning Alaska a four-star rating as well.
Kind of good, but kind of bad too
While it appears that Southwest, Delta, and Alaska got most of ConsumerAffairs reviewers’ love, it doesn’t mean that others were besieged by bad reviews. In fact, a couple of airlines got great reviews, but they were also beset with some reviews that dragged down their overall scores.
Take JetBlue, for example. It received a five-star review 45.8% of the time. However, it also received a one-star review 33.3% of the time. It’s not alone when it comes to that disparity. Allegiant Airlines was deemed worthy of five-star reviews 41.8% of the time but was besieged by one-star reviews 35.7% of the time.
Budget carriers such as Allegiant Airlines are dependent on fees to keep them in the green, and asking for as much as $80 for seat selection, $5 to print out a boarding pass, and $14.99 to purchase a ticket on a phone rather than online can get old. Just ask Michelle of Summerville, South Carolina.
“It was my first and LAST flight with them,” Anderson wrote. “They cost me additional fees in parking and my rental car and had the nerve to charge me a double fee for an extra bag bc I had already checked in on the app and it wouldn’t let me add a bag. The kind woman at check in waived the $50 exorbitant fee and the aid at the gate stopped me and took my bag and made me pay it at boarding.”
There are people who fly budget airlines, know exactly what they’re getting, and are happy to live without the frills as long as they get a good deal -- people like Joy from Pittsburgh, who appears to have flown Allegiant several times and still gives it a five-star review.
“Great airline with great prices. I have never had to wait for a flight and we have always been on time or sometimes early. The flight crews have always [been] very friendly and helpful. I would recommend this airline to my friends,” Joy wrote.
Two major airlines fall short
To our surprise, there are two large and successful airlines that have some work to do in the ratings department: American and United.
United Airlines’ one-star reviews were higher than its three-, four-, and five-star ratings combined. One-star reviews made up 47% of United’s totals, while its three levels of favorable reviews only added up to 45.1% of the total.
One of United’s three-star reviews came from Bill of Germantown, Maryland. “It always seems as if I'm playing air travel roulette when I fly United - will the airplane depart on time to make connections or not. The last time I flew I had to run from one concourse to another in DIA (Washington Dulles). Not fun,” he wrote.
As for American, ConsumerAffairs readers gave the Dallas-based carrier a one-star rating 43.1% of the time. That compares to 29.4% for five-star reviews and 18.8% for four-star reviews.
While Spirit Airlines doesn’t have the history that United and American do, its pre-pandemic passenger load of more than 34 million passengers a year was impressive enough to rank seventh out of all U.S. airlines in that metric. Its “Less Money, More Go” tagline might be putting people in seats, but ConsumerAffairs reviews show that not everyone is happy with the company’s business model.
Not only did Spirit amass the lowest percentage of five-star ratings -- 5.5% -- but it also racked up the highest number of one-star ratings at 69.4%. If the airline is looking for a reason, it doesn't need to look any further than the one-star review Haley from Young America, Minnesota, gave the carrier.
“Booked a round trip flight in which Spirit would be our airline back home. I heard nothing from this airline apart from junk mail promoting deals,” Haley wrote. “When I went to check into our flight 24 hours before our departure, I found out that our flight no longer existed and they had moved our nonstop flight to a two stop flight that would take 9 additional hours with a 7 hour layover.”
Despite the poor first-quarter showing, Spirit Airlines earned just under a four-star rating from ConsumerAffairs readers based on 1,461 ratings submitted in the last year.
ConsumerAffairs verifies all reviews before they are published, and we require contact information to ensure our reviewers are real. We use intelligent software that helps us maintain the integrity of reviews, and our moderators read all reviews to verify quality and helpfulness.
Mark Huffman contributed to this article.