The Best And Worst U.S. Airlines Of 2022, Objectively Ranked. Where Does Your Favorite Stand?

The Wall Street Journal‘s airline rankings are out. They do a pretty good job of comparing the operational performance of airlines. I don’t think that’s all you need to know, but if you understand what the rankings are trying to do (and don’t want DOT statistics yourself) they can be a useful snapshot.

Delta is back on top. Perennial strong competitor Alaska is right behind though they had numerous operational problems. Southwest comes in third – even though they completely failed over the holidays (recency bias!) and their on-time performance frequently lags with shorter turn times for aircraft. JetBlue is consistently an operational mess, here worse than Spirit and Frontier.

While I expect Delta to tout its win, note the subheading is “No one airline had a particularly good year.”

The Journal doesn’t just look at on-time performance, extreme delays (note that not every delay is equal, proponents of “D0” notwithstanding), and tarmac delays (which are worse for passengers). They look at lost bags and involuntary denied boardings. United and American, which have stopped paying out as much to encourage voluntary bumps, come out quite badly while Delta continues to be willing to pay quite a lot to get passengers to choose to take another flight, and avoid involuntary denied boardings. Finally they look at DOT complaints, though this is a bit of a ‘double dip’ on other performance metrics.

DOT data only runs through October, so Southwest’s complaints and mishandled bags in December aren’t factored in the rankings. In a sense it’s too early to run rankings on 2022 if you’re going to rely, in part, on DOT data.

There are important things these rankings do not consider, for instance:

  • Route network, who gets you where you need to go at convenient times? Who has backup flights and open seats, even, if something goes wrong?

  • Friendly employees, passengers often just want to be treated a little bit better than self-loading cargo, and that experience isn’t considered here. Delta and Southwest employees seem to hate their jobs less than American and United employees, on average.

  • Value for money spent. Delta and JetBlue bundle inflight internet with the ticket cost. Southwest bundles free checked bags. If you buy a basic economy ticket on United you don’t even get to bring on a regular-sized carry on bag (unless you have elite status or their co-brand credit card). At the same price different airlines provide different value to the customer.

  • Inflight experience. Even United will be adding seat back entertainment to its planes (joining Delta and JetBlue), American doesn’t have this. Southwest’s regular coach seats have a couple more inches of room than competitors. The on board experience is not the same across airlines.

Rankings that focus on operations also aren’t telling you anything about domestic versus international experience. United and American offer nice business class lounges on the ground for international passengers. Delta won’t have its first one until 2024. I consider United’s current international seat inferior to American’s and Delta’s. United has also been a laggard in meal quality and quantity in business class, and surprisingly (just compared to U.S. competitors) American has outperformed.

And, of course, there’s no discussion here of frequent flyer program – which can give you access to a better travel experience (upgrades!) and a better value travel experience.

The best airline for you is going to depend on schedule, price, and experience – which one has the product you want at the best price, though operational performance of course plays into this. It’s Delta’s historical operational performance which has helped to earn it a revenue premium, and allow it to deliver less value through its frequent flyer program than competitors.

While Delta comes out on top operationally, it doesn’t do so nearly by the margins it used to. Objectively its operational performance has been worse – just (somewhat) better than everyone else.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. All these “best and worst airlines” takes are only marginally useful. Anyone can have their “worst” flight ever on a highly-ranked airline and anyone can have their “best” flight ever on one of the lowest rated airlines. These studies might be useful to show the slight odds differences that something may or may not go bad on your flight, but if your flight is inconveniently delayed or canceled, regardless of what any of these performance ratings say, THAT airline is the worst airline in your book. Any airline is only as good as the last experience YOU had on that airline.

  2. What a joke – I’ve flown practically every US airline since the mid 80s and basically they are the same. All are public transportation and if you buy a ticket to get from point A to point B without any great expectations you will be fine. I’ve flown private and every class of seat (more in first than anywhere else) and accumulated over 8 million miles in the process. I primarily fly AA but also am lifetime on DL and have elite status on UA. I also fly Southwest and Frontier (thinking about the Spirit challenge since they added some destinations from CLT) so I really don’t care who I fly.

    Agree with you that the additional factors have to be legitimately considered. Also, maybe there need to be categories of comparison since I’d put UA, DL and AA in one bucket, Alaska and Jet Blue in another (niche airlines) and then Southwest, Frontier, Allegiant and Spirit (low cost although Southwest doesn’t meet that requirement any more but put them here due to boarding circus and no first class).

    I’m comfortable with all of them and these subjective rankings mean absolutely nothing.

  3. All objectively based on what you value. For example, DL is sitting at #1 and, while I agree that they are doing a generally good job, they have struggled to with connecting secondary / tertiary aiports to their broader network. I struggle to get places on DL if I am not starting and ending in a major city. I think AA is a dumpster fire but they can generally get me where I need to go.

    I avoid LCCs and ULCCs like the plague so I cannot speak to anything about them other than that they exist.

  4. Sitting in an economy seat, if you close your eyes, you would have no idea which airline you are on.

    Ratings such as these are just clickbait.

  5. @ Gary — Yeah, they are all basicaly the same. These experts can rank them all day long, but the true differences in the rankings are insignificant, except that Southwest, Frontier and Spirit should be excluded due to no F.

  6. The WSJ is reporting on OBJECTIVE measures which the DOT measures. As Gary notes, the data is only through October 2022 because DOT’s data lags by two months. The data records the last two months of 2021 and the first ten months of 2022. To get the full calendar year 2022, you will have to wait until the DOT releases its Air Travel Consumer Report in late Feb 2023.

    ALL purchases have a subjective factor based on one’s own personal preferences and that is true here. Subjective factors cannot be accurately measured against other airlines; not only does free internet not matter to some people but whether a seat is good or not is highly subjective.

    As for DL’s network, they specifically chose to not rebuild capacity in the 2nd half of 2022 in order to stabilize their operation – which suffered operationally in the spring of 2022. It is that focus on their product which resulted in them becoming the most reliable airline in the US not just for the 2nd half of 2022 but also for the entire year in aggregate. They did grow their market position in BOS, NYC and LAX in the 2nd half of the year and will now focus on rebuilding their core interior US hubs including ATL, DTW, MSP and SLC which improves their domestic connectivity as well as better supports their international network which is also growing faster than American or United in 2023.

    The US still has very good competition in the US airline industry and that is good for consumers.

    Data is as good as one wants it to be.
    But the performance data that the WSJ used – which is the basis for nearly all airline quality reports – is objective and measurable.
    How one melds that objective data with your own personal subjective factors is your choice.

  7. Recently flew UA domestic route to ORD and was surprised by the overall product. Bad app, poor lounge- easy entry, but nothing of value to offer. Generally friendly crew. On the flight: no screen, bad snacks (2 options in domestic first class and the options were basic), catering did not have all beverages as advertised, and paid internet was functional. This all from the airline that has the CEO proclaiming they’re the best US airline. What am I missing?

  8. Dollar for dollar, Southwest is head and shoulders above every other airline. I am sure that some moron(s) posting here will have to bring up the end of year problems Southwest had – but that is the exception – not the rule – with Southwest.

  9. David,
    Southwest has not performed operationally at levels comparable to the best-performing US airlines for years and LUV management acknowledged that.
    LUV has had multiple operational meltdowns in the past couple of years, although all were smaller than the Christmas 2022 mess.
    There are travelers that prioritize reliability fairly high – and that is part of why DAL has historically had a revenue advantage to the rest of the industry, lost it in the summer as a result of its operational problems in the spring, and regained it in the 4th quarter – at least according to data between DAL and UAL which are the only two airlines that have reported so far.
    The rest of the industry reports next week so we will see but LUV has already said their disaster will cost it between $725 and $825 million making it by far the most expensive single airline operational crisis in US aviation history.
    Delta doesn’t operate reliably because it wants to but because it makes good financial sense – in the form of higher revenue.
    Southwest has no choice but to fix their operational problems that allowed their disaster to happen because they didn’t invest in the technology and processes necessary to support large-scale operational crises which other airlines handled fairly well

    Everything any for-profit company does ultimately comes down to money. Delta chose an operational path that has worked financially while Southwest is paying the price for not going down that path – but in the form of very high one-time costs. How deeply WN has to discount to get passengers flying again will determine how deep the impact will be – but I am hearing plenty of stories of deeply discounted flights on WN.

  10. For any given person, airline A might be the best fit on route 1, airline B might be the best fit on route 2, and airline C might be the best fit on route 3. Sometimes the airline flown will be a matter of choice. Other times it will be a matter of there being no choice at all.

  11. But DL miles are worthless, I put Alaska, UA and AA about tied for value of miles. Though Alaska has a slight edge as far as earning rate for actually flying.because it’s distance based.

  12. I make it a point when I fly internationally to book a flight directly out of the US first and not use any hubs. I refuse to book through ATL (Delta), DFW (American), or Houston(United). Not to mention the inherent risk if flying on a budget airline and hoping it’s on time to catch a business flight. There’s simply too much hassle to take a flight inside the US. Qatar, Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa, Emirates, and KLM all have many direct flights.

  13. @Luke Jones what is wrong with the UA app? I feel like you can do more with it than any other airline app I can think of.

  14. There are many different rankings in our lives such as the best and worst states to live in, coffee rankings, NFL rankings, etc. Delta is on top for a reason, they are clearly a well run airline, not perfect, but through the years have always been near or at the top of the “best” list. The super bowl this year will most likely give us the best two teams in football, again not perfect but they will be there for a reason, great players, great coaches, etc.

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