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.