Years ago, in a discussion group on opera, a member asked the group leader, "Who is the greatest opera composer?" I disagreed with his answer. But as I re-thought the question, I concluded that "the greatest" boiled down to an irreducible list of five opera composers, and the ranking of the five depended on each individual person's metrics for "great."
It's the same with airlines. In this season of multiple heavily hyped "best airline" awards, naming the best depends on how you define best. My take is that, in an airline, "best" depends on three basic factors, plus one or two secondary factors and how you rank those factors. And, for this analysis, where class of service matters, I'm focusing on basic coach/economy/main cabin in U.S. airlines.
1. Performance. To most consumers, the "quality" of any product or service has two parts: How good the product is, and how well it is delivered. You assess an airline's performance factor by statistical measures of how well it delivers its product. Performance data do not vary by class of service. And here, you have Department of Transportation data on such key performance factors as on-time arrivals, denied boardings, mishandled baggage and consumer complaints. The annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR) system recently released its report for 2018, using full-year DOT data for 2017, covering most large U.S. airlines.
2. Hard Product. This "how good a product" element of quality refers to the physical measures of the accommodation the airline delivers: seat width, legroom, as measured by front-to-rear "pitch" spacing of seat rows, size of baggage bins, inflight connectivity and such. Hard product varies tremendously among the different classes of service, and can vary even within a single airline, depending on the plane model. Physical measurements are available for most airlines, and they're posted and compared on several websites such as SeatGugu.com.
3. Soft Product. The other "how good" element reflects how well an airline treats customers. You can't measure it objectively; findings are based on passenger surveys and analysis of trip reports. Features such as "helpful crew," "great service" and "friendly agents" dominate assessments of soft product, and travelers consider Southwest's two-free-checked-bags policy especially friendly. Dragging a doctor off an airplane clearly earns black marks. Soft product, as hard product, varies tremendously by class of service, and it often varies by flight.
4. Other Factors. Some travelers include scope of service -- how many places an airline serves -- as a factor in evaluating the best. I don't agree; by that measure, Bud Light would be the country's "best" beer. Some travelers consider an airline's frequent flyer program as an element, and there's some justification for including it, especially for folks who fly a lot. Unfortunately, trying to score frequent flyer programs is aiming at a moving target: Almost all major airlines are steadily devaluing their programs, making it harder for ordinary travelers to earn miles and harder to score "free" award seats.
5. So Which Lines Contend for Best? I've reviewed current airline ratings and rankings from TripAdvisor, AQR, Consumer Reports, American Consumer Satisfaction Index, Skytrax, Wallet Hub, AirlineRatings, the Points Guy, IdeaWorks and Temken Experience Ratings -- some based on objective measures, some based on surveys and traveler reports. And as far as it's possible to distill and combine the very disparate sources, my conclusions for U.S. airlines in coach/economy/main cabin class go something like this:
Best Airline; Performance: Alaska, with Delta a close second. Also very good: JetBlue, Hawaiian, Southwest, based on AQR.
Best Airline, Hard product: JetBlue, although it's currently degrading its product and is now only a little better rather than a lot better, based on SeatGuru data.
Best Airline; Soft Product. Southwest, followed closely by Delta and Hawaiian, based on surveys.
Best Airline; Scope. Southwest within the U.S.; American, United and Delta worldwide, based on government data.
Best Airline; Frequent Flyer: Alaska -- at least for now -- based on IdeaWorks analysis for 2017.
Best Airline; Big Three, General: Delta, a composite of all sources.