If all you care about is schedule and price then choose your airline based on schedule and price. But fewer people care about just these things than is commonly imagined – it’s just that these are the only pieces of information people have historically been given.
If you’re a regular travel then loyalty (and loyalty benefits) likely matter too. And if you’re older than 20 then comfort is going to matter too – even if you’re choosing Spirit Airlines, which is why their ‘Big Front Seat’ is one of the best deals in travel.
Say you move to Kansas City, and decide to start fresh with a new airline. That’s a competitive market with lots of airlines you can reasonably fly. Southwest is biggest but several airlines are choices you can select from.
I think the first thing you want to do is divorce points-earning from status-earning. It doesn’t matter if the miles you earn flying can be redeemed for international premium cabin award tickets, even if those are the tickets you want, because most of the miles you’ll earn will come from things other than flying (especially credit cards).
You want to focus on what’s most important to you in an airline.
- Do you care about first class upgrades? or most non-stop flights?
- Southwest status is great, from my perspective living in Austin in the middle of the country. Most domestic flights aren’t very long, and status means I’ll get a good seat even if I make a last minute booking or change. People are reasonably friendly and there’s a little more legroom than other airlines offer.
- If you fly longer flights then upgrades may matter, and upgrades may become more important going forward as it takes awhile for the airline industry to fully recover and for business travel to return. Once difficult upgrades may be easier so the value of elite status on legacy airlines may go up.
- If inflight internet matters then United is mostly out, their service is too slow and too unreliable. But it’s just one consideration – if you live on Staten Island are you really going to schlep to LaGuardia or JFK for inflight internet? If you live in Houston you’ll probably sacrifice internet for non-stop flights, even if internet is important.
- You can fly Delta for the product – marginally friendlier people and more reliable operation – and their top status is easiest to earn (thanks to credit card contributions) even though SkyMiles is a dumpster fire. Just try to earn miles for your non-flight activity elsewhere, caveating that credit card spend can be useful for earning status here.
Southwest Airlines ‘Economy’
Because mileage-earning is now largely about credit cards, not flying, your choice for airline to fly is about schedule, price, product – and elite experience if you’re a frequent flyer with enough travel to earn status.
In Austin I fly Southwest Airlines regularly – they are the largest carrier, and they have the only non-stop to Washington National airport (by law), my most frequent destination. For a short flight the experience is fine. I also fly American Airlines, the largest legacy carrier in my home city. For all their faults they have plenty of service, the staff in their lounge here is the best in their system – and those folks do an amazing job keeping people moving when American’s operation breaks down. And the airline has functional inflight internet, except on widebody aircraft which use Panasonic’s system.
How do you go about choosing an airline, and what keeps you loyal?