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The Best U.S. Airlines (They’re Not the Big 3)

Best airlines USA

(c) Virgin America

Travel + Leisure just published its annual “best of” issue with the results of its readers’ poll. When it comes to airlines, U.S. travelers would prefer to avoid the big 3.

This readers’ poll is fraught with fundamental problems of course. There’s always a lot of ballot stuffing by those who have incentive to participate. Plus awareness tends to trump experience. How many hotels has any given traveler actually stayed in over the course of the last year or two? How many people do you know that are well-traveled enough to truly know which are “the world’s best cities”?

Still, even with the resources at their disposal to sway the results, the three main airlines in the USA clearly have a reputation problem. When you ask travelers in surveys—any survey—about their airline experience, they don’t typically have a lot of good things to say about the post-mergers world of United, Delta, and American.

Here’s who came out on top instead:

1) Virgin America
2) JetBlue
3) Hawaiian Airlines
4) Alaska Airlines
5) Southwest Airlines

The message here is, if we’re not one of the few who logs enough miles to sit in front of the plane, we’d rather be in a plane where they treat us like humans and we don’t get nickeled and dimed to death. Passengers who are lucky enough to be on Virgin America’s routes rave about how much they love that airline. When’s the last time you heard anyone rave about Delta? (And at the other end of the scale, it’s even harder to find someone who will say something good about Spirit Air. They tend to be the doormat in almost every satisfaction survey.)

Best airlines America - #5 Southwest

The good news is, things are getting slightly better and we may have bounced off the bottom. The big three are starting to serve snacks again. They’re actually passing on a little bit of the savings from the lower fuel costs. If you get an airline’s credit card, you can get out of most (but not all) first checked bag fees. They’ve gotten better about responding to complaints and problems, including on Twitter. Of course most of those airlines you see above made all this easy all along, and were friendly on top of it, so they always rank higher with their customers.

If you’re heading elsewhere, you may want to look into that country’s airlines instead. There are a lot of Mexico airlines these days, for example, and most provide better service with fewer fees.

When the leaders do charge fees, they’re not sneaky about it. Here, for instance, is the entire rundown on every fee Virgin America charges, all laid out in an easy grid. We’re not sure how this list will play out next year though as a new spot will open up: Virgin America and Alaska Airlines are merging.

When it comes to international comparisons, we’re the pits. No U.S. airline showed up in the top-10 in Travel + Leisure’s survey and probably never will. The country where commercial aviation really started is now the country that puts efficiency and fee optimization above all else, especially with the three largest carriers. (Europe and Latin America got shut out too.) Once again, the top international ones are Singapore Airlines (which has won 21 years straight), Emirates, Qatar Airways, Eithad Airways, and Virgin Atlantic.

Let’s give a shout-out to Canada’s scrappy Porter Airlines though—they came in at #10 internationally.

See the whole rundown here.