The last time Delta ranked number one in the annual Airline Quality Rating report, Bill Clinton was president and AFAR was almost a decade away from publishing its first issue. But in the 18 years since, the Atlanta-based airline has fought its way back to the top in the 29th annual rankings of the largest airlines in the United States from researchers at Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
As the most comprehensive study of the performance and quality of the nine major U.S. carriers, the Airline Quality Report bases its ratings on four factors: mishandled baggage, consumer complaints, on-time performance, and involuntary denied boardings using 2018 data from the U.S. Transportation Department.
2019 Airline Quality Rating rankings of the nine largest airlines in the United States (2018 rankings in parentheses):
- Delta (2)
- JetBlue (3)
- Southwest (5)
- Alaska (1)
- Hawaiian (4)
- United (8)
- Spirit (12)
- American (9)
- Frontier (11)
Delta, which came in second place to Alaska for the past two years, was the only airline to improve in each of those four categories. Although it topped these rankings in 2000, its score fell over the next decade where it bottomed out at 15th place in the 2009 report. But since then, it slowly worked its way back to number one with the lowest rate of involuntary denied boardings of all the airlines and the second highest rate of on-time arrivals just after Hawaiian Airlines last year.
But no matter which airline you may be loyal to, there’s good news. The overall industry score went up for the fourth year in a row, showing that U.S. airlines are getting better at handling baggage, not bumping passengers, and receiving fewer complaints. The only category that didn’t improve across the industry last year was on-time arrivals, with only 79.2 percent of flights in 2018 arriving on time versus 80.2 percent in 2017.
In addition to Delta, both JetBlue and Southwest Airlines overtook Alaska Airlines to round out the top three. Hawaiian, Spirit, and United also improved their scores in the past year. In fact, Spirit showed the most improvement of all the airlines with a notable drop in customer complaints since last year.
However, Alaska’s rating, which reflects its acquisition of Virgin America in April 2018, fell because it had a higher rate of mishandled luggage and fewer on-time arrivals in 2018 compared to 2017. American and Frontier also saw their scores drop. While American only experienced a slight decrease in its score due to problems with on-time arrivals and baggage handling, Frontier saw the largest decline of all the airlines in the study after its on-time performance fell nearly 10 percent and its customer complaints increased significantly in one year.
Technically, Hawaiian fell from fourth to fifth place in the rankings since last year, but it actually had the best on-time performance of all the airlines in this list and also improved its involuntary denied boarding performance and mishandled baggage rate since 2017. While Hawaiian’s customer complaint rate didn’t improve, the main reason it dropped in these ratings is because of Southwest’s larger improvements overall (it had the lowest customer complaint rate of all nine carriers).