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Airlines to Avoid: 22 of the World’s Worst

A travel industry friend recently asked a question on Facebook about which airline his friends thought was “the best.” When you removed the answers influenced by loyalty status perks, it was a pretty short list: Southwest and Alaska Air in the USA, Emirates, Qatar Airlines, and Singapore Airlines internationally. If he had really wanted to get a lot of debate, it would be easier to 10X the responses by asking which airlines to avoid.

“The world’s worst airlines” seems to have a lot more contenders than a contest to find the best these days.

world's worst airlines to avoid

In some ways, this is unfair. Flying is safer than it has ever been. How many commercial plane crashes can you remember hearing about in the past four years? Sure, there have been some near misses and a gaping hole showing up mid-flight recently, but almost nobody has died, despite the millions taking to the air each year. We certainly can’t say the same about trips on buses, ships, trains, or cars.

Our perception is that the flying experience is far worse though and it’s not our imagination. Seat pitch has decreased and the seats are narrower so they can stuff more in. Very few airlines let you check your bag at no cost anymore, so the boarding process is mayhem as everyone fights for scarcer overhead bin space to avoid paying. Whenever there’s a weather or technical problem, there are so many flights trying to land that a chain reaction leads to hundreds of flights being delayed or canceled. 

Those problems are mostly universal though, so we have to decide on which yardstick we are using to measure the world’s worst airlines. Customer service experience, amenities, timeliness, safety, and the number of bags gone missing all play into both statistics and personal opinions. Finding the consensus for the worst airline depends on analyzing all of this data together on a scorecard system or separating each factor out to rank airlines based on that. 

If you go by surveys, complaints, and fees, Spirit and Frontier are historically the worst in the developed world. They also scrape the bottom in nearly every other category. There’s a reason almost nobody says they love either airline. Although they tend to offer the cheapest fares around, along with slightly more favorable Allegiant, you’re certainly getting what you pay for, with the lowest scores, ratings, and statistics. 

If we run the numbers though, here’s who comes out on the bottom, the airlines to avoid if you can. 

The Worst Airlines in Terms of Safety

world's worst airline for safety 2023

If we’re naming the worst airline on the criteria of recent safety records, then that would be Yeti Air of Nepal. It holds the title as the only airline responsible for a fatal plane crash in 2023. A flight between Kathmandu and Pokhara crashed on the descent, killing 72 people.

I took a flight on that same route in Nepal a few years ago. I guess it was a good thing I was on Buddha Air instead of Yeti Air I guess, though let’s be real: the chances of dying in a plane crash are about as low as you can get. Here’s how the IATA put it in their 2024 report:

At this level of safety, on average a person would have to travel by air every day for 103,239 years to experience a fatal accident.

It’s important to stress that fatal airline accidents are extremely rare, with some years not having a single commercial flight accident worldwide. In fact, not one U.S. airline had a fatal crash for a whole four-year run between 2014 and 2017, which is quite amazing. So any airline rated badly because of fatalities is probably suffering from an incident quite a few years back.

Accumulated from various reports, some of the all-around top contenders for the worst airlines in the safety category are as follows:

Aeroflot – Universally acclaimed as the worst large airline in the world, Aeroflot is the Russian state carrier and the planes are not exactly known as being modern and world-standard. Nobody trusts their official accident statistics either in a country where state media reports cannot be questioned and a flight with a Putin rival on it exploded in mid-air last year. In this worldwide list from, Aeroflot scored a zero out of 10. In fact, all 6 airlines scoring a zero are Russian ones.

Lion Air– Indonesia’s largest private airline serves around 40 destinations and until recently was banned from traveling to the EU at all due to safety concerns, with a whopping 15 serious accidents over the years, including a fatal crash. The site gives it a 2 out of 10 on safety.

Yeti Airlines – See above. Residing in Nepal’s mountain region, the area is risky to land and take off in due to terrain, runway length, and weather. It had the only fatal crash of 2023.

PNG Air Papua New Guinea’s commercial airline does not have the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) certification which is a concerning factor on top of a history of accidents.

Honorable mentions: The flagship carriers from Pakistan, Iran, Algeria, Nepal, and Ethiopia all have terrible safety records. In terms of popular carriers you’re likely to see in your international travels, the safety records are not good for Pegasus, Malaysia Airways, Asiana, or China Eastern—mostly because of past fatal crashes.

Air France and American Airlines both have 11 fatal crashes on an accumulated basis, but the events happened a very long time ago. It doesn’t seem fair to put them in the same class as these others, especially considering their vast size.

In American’s case, their high fatality numbers are due to the terrorist attack events of September 11, 2001. That’s 23 years ago, so they probably have employees who weren’t even born then.

While the first thing you may think of when you hear “Malaysian Airlines” is “plane crash,” but it has actually been 10 years since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, with everyone on board presumed dead. The wreckage has never been found, though people and companies are still searching the vast Pacific Ocean anywhere near the flight path. 

The accident rate of U.S. airliners has been decreasing over the last two decades, with many years passing without a single major accident. The odds of dying in a plane crash are lower than being killed by lightning or being fatally bit by a rattlesnake. You’re better off avoiding junk food than flying if you want to live a long life. 

The Worst Airline Customer Service Records

worst airline customer service

Customer service covers a wide range of experiences, from booking, pre-flight, in-flight, boarding, baggage, and getting help from a live agent when you need one. Many airlines have had their fair share of hostile employees, lost or damaged baggage, frustrating phone service, and so on but a few are common contenders in the category.

Airhelp crunched the numbers on multiple categories for airlines worldwide in 2019, the last year before the pandemic hit, rating on-time performance, quality of service on the flight and claims processing of canceled or delayed flights. They found that the worst by the numbers were EasyJet at #2, Kuwait Airlines at #3, and Korean Air at #4, mostly because of their terrible claims processing. 

Which was number one? The airline that went out of business that year: Thomas Cook Airlines. Number 15 on Airhelp’s list–GOL of Brazil–was probably getting terrible scores because they were broke and cutting corners. In January of this year they filed for bankruptcy. 

In the first half of 2022, as we were coming out of the pandemic and airlines really showed their true colors, American Airlines had the most complaints by far, at 3,186, followed by United Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and Frontier Airlines. When you look at the number of complaints per 10,000 passengers, that evens out the disadvantage that larger carriers would face and Frontier Airlines comes out as the worst most years.

If you look at this DOT dashboard it’s easy to see why: they have the most customer-unfriendly policies of any airline. Spirit Airlines generally comes in second, with Hawaiian often beating out budget Allegiant in the complaint department. 

American Airlines isn’t doing much to help their poor position either: earlier this year they laid off 656 U.S.-based customer service reps and made vague promises about “elevating your experience” by hiring agents who sort of speak English on the other side of an ocean. I saw this coming when I wrote about how badly they were handling the Covid crisis back in 2020. Delta got a huge perception boost then and it has carried through until now: they never show up at the bottom unless we’re talking about their degraded frequent flyer program. 

Flying with American Airlines

It’s important to look at trends over time instead of one month’s data though: Southwest Airlines generally gets the fewest number of complaints among the large carriers and scores much higher than the others in customer satisfaction surveys. When they had a big holiday travel meltdown in late 2022 that stranded thousands, however, they took the lead in complaints by a large margin. 

Naturally, those sitting in the front of the plane have fewer complaints than us in the cattle car section. What’s interesting is, American Airlines often gets rated the worst in all three categories: business, premium economy, and economy. 

The Worst Airlines for Reliability

Flights being on time is especially important when traveling, particularly if you’re making connecting flights or attending to timely responsibilities at your destination. Some airlines are known for being later than others, consistently for years.

In 2023 according to this LendingTree study from the first four months of 2023, the top 5 lowest on-time arrival percentages are as follows:

  1. Frontier Airlines – 65.41%
  2. Hawaiian Airlines – 66.39%
  3. Spirit Airlines – 66.97%
  4. JetBlue – 68.73%
  5. Allegiant Air – 70.35%

Allegiant budget airline

Similar studies that have included Canadian airlines have found two that were doing even worse than Frontier: Air Canada with only a 55.56% on-time arrival rate and WestJet at 60.66%.

While Southwest has hit some rough patches now and then, they are usually battling with Delta for the best on-time arrival record and they are, by far, the fastest to board and take off. There’s no secret as to why that’s the case: they don’t charge for carry-ons, so the boarding process is not such a battle for bin space by people trying to avoid high baggage fees by carrying on everything. 

A Lack of Amenities in the Air

If you’re going to fly on Allegiant, Spirit, Frontier, or Viva Aerobus, you’d better pack your own fun. 

Amenities may be an afterthought for many these days with the ability to download entertainment to our phone, tablet, or Kindle. But for those who prefer to pack lighter and have something to entertain them at the ready when they sit down, an airline’s offerings are something to consider.

I’ve probably told 20 people how great the entertainment system was on the Emirates flights I took all the way from Thailand to Mexico via Dubai. I think they had more great movies and music on offer than every other airline I’ve flown the past decade added together. 

Emirates flight attendant and entertainment

A Business Insider article on “The best and worst US airlines to fly for in-flight entertainment, ranked” noted that Allegiant Air, Frontier Airlines, and Spirit Airlines tie for last, offering no in-flight entertainment. Far and Wide supports this, quoting “Nothing is complementary, not a tiny cup of water nor the smile of an employee.”

You truly get what you’re paying for with these no-frills carriers, even in you’re on what most people would consider a long-haul flight, like Ft.Lauderdale to Lima on Spirit.

Which Airline Loses the Most Baggage?

worst airlines for lost luggage

Just as airlines overall are safer than ever, they’re also losing fewer bags than ever, so we need to give credit where it’s due. Bar code tags, handheld scanners, and smarter conveyer systems are getting more bags to where they need to be. I would personally need to go back 30 years to talk about the last time an airline lost my bag for more than 24 hours and even that time I got it back, just later than I wanted. And I fly with a checked bag 10-20 times a year. 

[Related story: Check a Bag or Not? It’s Not a Binary Decision Anymore]

I was on an Air Botswana flight once though where my luggage made it from Joburg to Botswana but my seatmate’s bag did not. This on an airline that only goes between those two cities and nowhere else. I’m not sure how they managed that screw-up but he did the whole safari with one outfit.

The last thing you want to deal with when traveling though is missing or damaged baggage. While this is one of the lesser factors to worry about statistically, it is something to consider because you probably know someone who has dealt with the issue or you have yourself. (Reminder, always have travel insurance — it covers this.)

Remember that a bag is “lost” in these statistics even if it arrives on the next flight and gets delivered to your hotel. Some do disappear forever though and end up here

Travel Agent Central reports the following mishandled bags per 1,000 suitcases:

  1. American Airlines – 5.34
  2. SkyWest Airlines – 4.51
  3. United Airlines – 4.00
  4. Alaska Airlines – 3.80
  5. JetBlue – 3.17
  6. Frontier Airlines – 3.09
  7. Delta Air Lines – 3.08
  8. Hawaiian Airlines – 2.90

I find it interesting that Southwest does so well even though it is handling more bags. You’re less likely to lose your suitcase with the airline that doesn’t charge you extra to check it! 

You’ll have to poke around for statistics for other continents as the data isn’t as standardized as it is in the USA. In general though, the airlines that get the most customer complaints also tend to have the highest number of lost bags: the statistics are highly correlated.

Luggage storage company Bounce crunched the numbers last year on a variety of factors, including on-time performance and complaints, and here’s who came out on the bottom internationally, with their scores. The first two are both from Indonesia. 

Wings Air (0.37)
Lion Air (0.61)
Jetstar Airways (0.94)
flydubai (1)
Viva Aerobus (1.18)
Wizz Air (1.31)
Ryanair (1.63)
WestJet (1.66)
Vueling Airlines (1.96)
Air Canada (2.11) / Volaris (2.11)

The Worst Airlines for Fees

high luggage fees on Spirit Air

Airline fees are a royal pain, especially when you think you’re getting a good deal on a flight before seeing the hidden total. The current U.S. administration has been fighting to make these fees more transparent up front, but it’s a tough battle and when you search with a tool like Kayak, they make it incredibly hard for you to leave out the awful “basic economy” flights or compare what it really costs when you check your luggage.

Determining which airlines have more or less fees will help narrow down your search for the best deal and value.

A new study from ancillary specialists, IdeaWorks, found that 20 top airlines made a combined $33.3 billion in baggage fees imposed on customers last year, including overweight bag fees and checked bag fees.

Last month, American Airlines increased baggage fees another 5-10$ depending on whether you purchase online or in the airport. Others soon followed suit. Frontier is known to have some of the highest baggage fees, at $59 – $99 for your first checked bag. Frontier has an online baggage calculator as does Spirit, where carry-ons also require a fee.

They don’t make it easy to figure out how much you’ll pay because it varies by flight, just as it does on Allegiant. You basically have to go through the booking process to see how much it will cost you to bring a change of clothes and toiletries when you travel. 

Then there are fees for reserving a seat, boarding in an earlier group, or even printing out a boarding pass when you check in. For some in Europe, you pay more just to use a credit card. Simple Flying broke down the 5 airlines with the most hidden fees worldwide as a percentage of the base fare and the numbers are shocking:

  1. Spirit Airlines – 736%
  2. Volaris – 626%
  3. Etihad Airways – 400%
  4. Frontier Airlines – 375%
  5. Ryanair – 344%

All 5 of these percentages are astronomical, at least 3x the base fare, so if you’re looking to avoid pop-up costs, it’s best to factor these airlines out. Volaris and Viva Aerobus don’t even show the taxes in their base fare, even though you can’t buy a ticket without paying the taxes! 

According to NetVoucherCodes, 89% of airlines have hidden fees, most in America and Europe, around 51$ on average. Seat selection is noted to be the most common fee, but baggage fees are rampant as well. As far as some European and International airlines that have high percentages in their report, they are as follows:

  1. Etihad – 401%
  2. Ryanair – 344%
  3. Wizz Air – 273%
  4. Easy Jet – 170%
  5. Air Europa – 160%

What’s the story with the airlines I bolded throughout this article? Well, I need to decide on a number for the worst airlines in the world. It’s easy to put in Frontier and Sprit since they show up in almost every list, in almost every category, but I wanted to include others that topping any of these individual factor reports. So my headline answer is…22. 

We’re not saying these airlines to avoid should never be in your plans, especially if you live in one of their hubs and can get to a loyalty elite tier where things are better. I actually got elite status a couple times on American even though they’re usually my last choice.

But for some of them, assume they’ll get you from A to B but it won’t be a pleasant trip and you’ll be reaching into your wallet repeatedly. The budget airlines don’t really reward loyalty anyway, so only fly on them if you’ll pay far less even after factoring in the fees. 

Full disclosure: I’ve intentionally bought a flight on many of these and nothing majorly bad happened to me. In recent years I have flown on American, Wizz Air, Ryanair, Viva Aerobus, Allegiant, and Volaris. I have avoided Spirit for ages though and haven’t flown Frontier since they became a budget carrier with a terrible reputation. Aeroflot has been on my “never” list for decades, even before they invaded their peaceful democratic neighbor in a land grab. 

Article by Tim Leffel, book author and opinionated frequent flier since the 1990s. All photos by Leffel except the grumpy flight attendant, which was produced by a happy robot. 


Wednesday 13th of March 2024

Nice Post