What is the best American airline?
July 29, 2012 4:24 AM   Subscribe

Based on your personal experience, what is the best American airline to fly with (in terms of quality of service, comfort, customer service, etc.)?
posted by Tenacious.Me.Tokyo to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Although i despise the seating southwest has few nickel/dime charge and generous bag allowances. My preferred airline was Jetblue and they're still nice but little charges are creeping in. Those are the two I think of for national travel. Your question needs perspective though to answer better.... what's your home airline? Is budget a concern? Where do you plan to fly to the most, usa? Overseas?
posted by chasles at 4:31 AM on July 29, 2012

Irrespective of cost, since that wasn't one of your criteria, I would say JetBlue.
posted by XMLicious at 4:43 AM on July 29, 2012

For me, Virgin America. jetBlue comes in second.
posted by hijinx at 4:48 AM on July 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm a very infrequent flyer, but JetBlue is what came to mind. If I had to book a flight it would be my first choice.
posted by Melsky at 4:56 AM on July 29, 2012

Southwest is most convenient for me, but I've had a series of bad customer service experiences, from lost luggage to general grumpiness to canceled flights in the middle of a trip with no amends. I would imagine Virgin America is the most "European" of airlines in the US, but I've never flown it.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:03 AM on July 29, 2012

It depends on where you're located, how often you fly and what your flying patterns look like. And whether or not you want the perks you can get from elite status.

For me, flying within an alliance is important for the status I can rack up and the expanded route system. Once I chose an alliance I did a lot of research on FLyerTalk to figure out which specific airline had the best route structure for me, had the best redemption program for award travel, and had an affiliated credit card for garnering extra points. Seven years ago that was SkyTeam and Continental. The recent merger means it's now Star Alliance and United (a lot of flyers disgruntled by the merger have gone to AA. I haven't figured out if it's really any better, they're in bankruptcy and I suspect they'll be merging with USAir soon anyway.)

Virgin America looks nice for their hard product (planes and seats), but doesn't really fly to enough cities and has a rather stingy frequent flyer program.

FlyerTalk is a great place to research this stuff once you've narrowed things down to a few airlines.
posted by idest at 5:15 AM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

JetBlue (based on 150+ flights a year for the last three years).
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:38 AM on July 29, 2012

It will depend a lot of route, but this is my general order of preference:


Southwest would be higher up, but I don't like fighting for a seat, so I tend to treat them as the fallback - they have more destinations than the others. Alaska is newly added to my list because I had to fly to a few small towns on the west coast, and I have to say I was impressed.

I refuse to fly United, Continental, American, or Delta except where they operate code shares for the US leg of an international flight booked through another airline. (Sometime sunavoidable.)
posted by Nothing at 6:09 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Based on my personal experience, I noticed that flying United with elite status provided a superior experience not only to flying as a non-elite with the other legacy carriers, but from the budget airlines. I have no experience as a flyer with elite status on the other legacy carriers, though (although I've compared notes with coworkers and read Flyertalk, etc.)

The reasons I personally found it so awesome to fly with status on United were:
  • Flexibility of schedule. Having priority on the standby list is huge. I could miss a flight out of O'Hare, go standby on the next one, and clear the list before non-elites.
  • Comfort. Economy Plus, yay. Huge legroom on exit rows, truly awesome (better than business / first class on some configurations).
  • Priority Security / Priority baggage handling. A huge deal when I was flying out of O'Hare, this saved lots of time.
  • Able to successfully book reward (coach) travel to Asia, and upgrade to business class on a trans-Atlantic flight (compare: Delta Skypesos)
Other benefits, not so much a big deal for me.

I've lost status on United due to job changes and such. But based on my prior experience, if given the choice in the future and if my work permitted it, I would prefer travel on any of the legacy carriers as an elite to travel on the other carriers. (Given Delta's award redemption issues, I would probably place Delta last among the legacy carriers.)

And I'll nth a reference to Flyertalk as the best place to talk this stuff through.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 6:20 AM on July 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oops, hit "post" instead of preview.

Since the OP is in Tokyo and is asking about US carriers, I suspect that if trans-pacific flights are in the OP's future, then gaining elite status on a US carrier could be easily within reach.

That said, both the "hard product" and "soft product" of US carriers in general is generally regarded as inferior to Asian carriers, especially in First/Business class on trans-pacific flights. Trip reports on Flyertalk seem to point out consistently that the service on Asian-based carriers such as ANA or Singapore come nowhere near what you get on trans-Pacific flights on the US carriers. (Note that given airline alliances, it is possible -- difficult, but possible -- to redeem a US carrier's frequent flier miles for flights on those Asian carriers.)

So if the OP is comparing service on Asian airlines to US domestic travel, there might be a big perceived difference on any US carrier.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 6:27 AM on July 29, 2012

JetBlue. More legroom, less inconvenience & foolishness. My parents both worked for a major airline so I am an expert, of course. I wouldn't fly on their employer again now unless I had to -- no comparison to JetBlue.
posted by theredpen at 6:28 AM on July 29, 2012

I also love Virgin American, but totally agree about their limited flights, and their ff program. That said, I am confident that they are going to grow over the next few years because they are so good. JetBlue I agree is great, but they started out with a similarly limited flight offering if I recall, so here's hoping.
posted by pazazygeek at 6:34 AM on July 29, 2012

It really depends on your values, routes and interests.

I only fly American Airlines, though this is somewhat threatened by their bankruptcy. I chose American, and for now still exclusively do, because:

* Their routes make sense for where I fly most regularly.

* They have a very strong union (currently in dispute with management during the bankruptcy, unfortunately). That means that there are pilots who care about their jobs and their customers, and flight attendants who regard this as a lifetime career. (Jet Blue and a number of other airlines are not unionized or are semiuninoized.) Their flight attendants are adults, with decades of experience, not some kids.

* They have a very good--probably the best--frequent flier reward program. (Flying any U.S. airline, in general, without status is... not great. Though I appreciate Jet Blue and Virgin's "pay as you go" first class status.)

* They don't outsource their mechanics. The budget airlines employ comparatively few mechanics, and largely send their planes out of the U.S. for service. American takes care of their planes with unionized, usually on-site labor. And they spend a LOT of money on doing this. (Jet Blue and other budget airlines spend far less in upkeep per plane.)

* They're updating pretty much their entire fleet right now, and phasing in a ton of new planes over the next couple of years.

* I like their reservation system and find it pretty easy to 'game' for the seats I like and the times I like to fly.

* It's easy for me to find bargains on the routes I travel most.

* Because they were the airline used during the 9/11 attacks, their staff has an extremely personalized interest in safety and security, instead of in security theatrics.

* They have a very large number of pilots out on military leave, and a large number of pilots with military background. They have pilots with immense experience and confidence.

* They pay their staff well (for now). Some budget airlines in the U.S. pay absolutely paltry salaries to pilots and other staff.

* They're making first and business class pretty exceptional in the renovations--comparable, at least in seating, if not in service (or food), to the great Asian airlines.

* The "OneWorld Alliance" partnerships with other airlines (like BA) are extremely useful for international travel.

Currently I would describe American employees as "extremely disgruntled," and I don't blame them. I hope that the bankruptcy doesn't change the airline and I fear that it will.

I appreciate the upstarts like Jet Blue and Virgin, and I appreciate their customer-facing business model, but I don't like their arrangements with employees and maintenance.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:46 AM on July 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

OP, as you seem to be "best answer" tagging answers about elite status, it may be helpful if you tell us which route or routes you intend to fly, how frequently you intend to fly, whether you are flying for business, etc.

If you are only flying internationally, domestic carriers are irrelevant. If you are flying to certain cities, certain carriers may have more flights, and that can be a big deal in some circumstances. If you aren't flying a lot, you may never gain status, or enough status to matter.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:31 AM on July 29, 2012

In the last few years I've had upper elite status with several airlines: Platinum with United, Executive Platinum on American, A-List Preferred on Southwest.

United Airlines is the worst of the three by far. They've never really recovered from the whole "Break the unions" thing. Their company has acrimonious relations with their employees and it rubs off on how customers are treated.

United also has the most unusable website and difficult phone service. If you need to do something a bit out of the norm it will take HOURS on the phone. It took me nearly 4 hours on the phone to arrange to take my cat as a carry-on. On other airlines, that cat transaction takes about a minute. I asked the manager who finally booked the cat on United why this was such a huge problem. She explained the most of their phone services are handled off-shore and their off-shore employees have limited computer access. (I haven't had to call them recently and maybe that's improved.)

American is fine domestically. First class on American is pretty good and if you have Platinum Exec, you can get a seat in first about 50% of the time on short haul routes; a bit less on cross-country.

Website is acceptable. Boarding pass kiosk at the airport is a bit wonky and not designed for good user experience, but you get used to it. Airport lounges are available in most of the big airports and make long connections more pleasant.

Southwest is getting more nickel and dime-y but I still like them for short haul flights. If you have upper tier status the seating thing isn't an issue since you get on first. Website, kiosk and phone service is all good - kitschy, but good. Plus, Southwest is poised to start trips to Hawaii and the Caribbean soon if that matters to you.

All that says - what really matters is does the airline go where you want to go. I'll fly United to avoid a connection. I like Frontier, JetBlue, Alaska and Virgin but they generally aren't going the route I want to fly.
posted by 26.2 at 12:12 PM on July 29, 2012

I really like Alaska in terms of great staff, comfortable seats, and courteous service when on the plane itself.

Plus, they've given me a free LIVE ANIMALS sticker for my travel mug once.
posted by spinifex23 at 1:22 PM on July 29, 2012

I've earned the most miles with American and I LOVE flying them out of Atlanta, because they're in the closest concourse to Security (you don't have to go down to the train and then back up to the concourse). If I want a direct flight I used to like Air Tran, I used to fly them twice a month up and back to Pittsburgh and I got to know the crew and it was all very nice, casual and fun. I exchanged books with the flight attendants (this was a few years ago, before Kindles were cheap and ubiquitious.)

I find the flight attendants on Delta snooty and kind of mean, but if it means a non-stop flight, I'll suck it up. Just came back from the UK on Delta and the food was disgusting! (I mean, it's International, it should be edible.)

If I have to fly on United, I'd rather stay home. Had the WORST flight to the UK from Nashville, just miserable. I feel similarly about Continental, the fleet is old and nasty, and changing planes in Houston is gross.

US Airways, meh. If you're flying a lot from Charlotte or Pittsburgh or Philly, it's okay, but some of the fleet is old and funky.

Southwest is what you make of it. It's low cost, you have to change planes a lot. I like it though because it is what it is.

I've never been on JetBlue, but I'd love to try it out. Ditto Virgin.

I miss PSA, that was a great airline!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:17 PM on July 29, 2012

My favorites are Alaska, jetBlue, Virgin America, American, and Delta.

I avoid US Airways whenever possible after one particularly bad experience.
posted by spanishbombs at 3:40 PM on July 29, 2012

I fly Southwest if they happen to fly where I'm going. Tickets are cheap, flights are almost never delayed, and the frequent flyer miles program is pretty good.
posted by entropyiswinning at 3:58 PM on July 29, 2012

I've flown fairly regularly over the past couple of years and my top three domestic preferences are:
1. Virgin America. They are leaps and bounds above others, in my opinion, and have always been the cheapest, which is a priority for me. I also had enough points for a round trip LA to Boston ticket in only 7 or so trips. It usually takes me much longer to accumulate enough miles to do that on American Airlines, and Virgin America didn't have any blackout dates or restrictions. The one downside is that their routes are limited, so it depends upon if those fit with the airports you need to fly through.
2. Jet Blue. Cost is in step with Virgin America (they are usually the same to the dollar, even when adding in baggage fees & such). Comfort is similar, but I would say slightly less than Virgin. They also have a limited route issue.
3. American. American is my first choice for a big airline that flies pretty much anywhere. Prior to flying Virgin America, they were my airline of choice. I also have planned hundreds, possibly thousands, of flights for executives and AA was my go-to airline as a planner and the preferred choice of my travellers.
posted by katemcd at 7:49 PM on July 29, 2012

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