July 2007
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Best airlines for today’s busy skies
23,000 readers tell which carriers deliver superior service

illustraion of people at an airport
Illustrations by Jason Schneider
Packed planes, stingy service, and rising airfares have propelled the U.S. airline industry back into the black, but many passengers tell us they’re seeing red. You’ll increase your odds of a happy--or at least tolerable--flying experience by choosing one of the airlines that did well in our exclusive survey. You might even save some money.

Two such airlines top our Ratings
(available to subscribers)
: JetBlue Airways, the plucky price fighter based in Queens, N.Y., and Midwest Airlines, the Milwaukee-based carrier that bakes chocolate chip cookies for its passengers in flight.

Some 23,000 readers told us about their experiences on a total of 31,455 U.S. domestic flights in the survey, conducted in early February of this year by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. The survey questions covered such matters as check-in ease, seating comfort, on-time performance, and in-flight service.

Our researchers also conducted a smaller, follow-up survey in April, soon after the highly publicized, weather-related blunders of JetBlue in mid-February and USAirways in March, which left thousands of their passengers stranded and fuming. We found that JetBlue’s blues seem to have had little effect on the airline’s overall levels of satisfaction; it remained among the top-rated carriers in our second survey.

But USAirways, which was already at the bottom of our Ratings
(available to subscribers)
, fell another 10 points in the follow-up survey, to 52 in overall satisfaction. Compounding its weather woes, USAirways has been in a long and messy merger with another low-rated carrier, America West Airlines, since 2005, and difficulties marrying their computer reservation systems this year created weeks of delays and disruptions for many of their customers.

Our survey also asked travelers to assess the independent ticket-booking Web sites they had used, such as Expedia or Orbitz, as well as the airlines’ own sites. Readers reported little difference among these sites. Almost all were rated about average in overall satisfaction, except for three standouts: the sites operated by JetBlue, Midwest, and Southwest.

Among our other findings:
  • Smaller and newer airlines often seemed to treat customers better. Indeed, several of our top-rated carriers, including JetBlue (founded in 1999), Midwest (which started out as a corporate air shuttle for Kimberly-Clark executives and took its current name in 2003), and Southwest (a former Texas regional carrier that went national in the 1980s), have made a focus on the consumer an integral part of their business strategy.

    Two exceptions to that generalization: AirTran and ATA, both founded in the early 1990s, delivered only average and below-average satisfaction, respectively, in our survey. Continental Airlines, in business since 1934, rated higher than most major carriers.

  • The industry as a whole could try a lot harder to please. Compared with other services we cover in our surveys, the airline industry’s average satisfaction score of 72 is worse than that of hotels and rental car companies and better only than such perennials of frustration as wireless carriers, cable TV operators, and computer tech support.


CHOOSE A CARRIER

If JetBlue, Southwest, Frontier, or Hawaiian flies your route, look no further. All four of those airlines provided a superior experience, according to our readers, and at a price that’s often lower than those of their competitors. Midwest also scored high for satisfaction, but its tickets can be pricier. Once you’ve settled on a carrier, you’re not quite done. To boost your odds of a pleasant trip, you’ll still need to do the following:

Pick the right flight. Our readers reported worse on-time performance and lower overall satisfaction on connecting flights, so we’d suggest you aim to fly nonstop whenever that’s possible. Also, instead of automatically booking travel to the familiar big-name airport, consider smaller secondary airfields--Burbank rather than Los Angeles International, for example, or Midway rather than Chicago’s O’Hare. They can have faster check-ins, shorter walks to the gate, and fewer baggage-claim problems.

Take a seat. To avoid unpleasant surprises, try to nail down your seat assignments when you make your reservations. At some online booking sites you can even see which available rows offer the most leg room.

If you’re physically large, have a bit of claustrophobia, or just don’t like having some stranger’s seatback in your face for hours at a time, pay particular attention to the “Seating comfort” column in our Ratings
(available to subscribers)
.

JetBlue and Midwest, which earned the highest marks on that dimension, have seats 18 to 21 inches wide, with a 32- to 36-inch pitch (the distance from any point on the seat to the same point on the seat ahead). By contrast, domestic seats on Northwest, which earned the lowest score here, measure just 17 inches wide with a 30- to 32-inch pitch.

Midwest’s Signature Service even eliminates the dreaded middle seat. It configures its planes with two seats on either side of the aisle.

In general, our survey respondents reported that they were more satisfied with business-class or first-class service than with coach. That might seem obvious, except that passengers also tend to bring higher expectations to a higher-cost seat. So if in-flight comfort is paramount, you might want to spring for the extra cost of a business- or first-class ticket or use some of your frequent-flyer miles with that airline to upgrade from coach.


LAND A BETTER FARE

If a highly rated, low-cost airline is going where you are, you’re in luck. But if your choices are limited to the higher-cost and less desirable carriers, you’ll need to shop around a bit to at least get a good ticket price. Some suggestions:

Work the Web. Airfares change season to season, day to day, and even hour to hour. The best way to get a ticket at a decent price is to use the Internet, which is where 73 percent of our readers told us they bought their tickets.

Even then you might have to visit more than one Web site, because each has its limitations. For example, some airline sites--including those of American Airlines, Continental, and USAirways--show initial price quotes that, as they explain, don’t include the extra fees and taxes that can add $73 to a $327 roundtrip ticket with connecting flights. That makes the fare seem lower than those shown by other sites that include all the extras.

Independent sites, meanwhile, neglect some airlines in their searches. For example, none shows airfares from Southwest, which doesn’t share its data. And Orbitz doesn’t include JetBlue flights in its searches. A “best price” search isn’t worth much if it excludes those highly rated low-fare carriers.

Book early or late. Start shopping for fares as soon as you know your travel dates, to take advantage of advance-purchase discounts. In general, fares trend upward as the departure date nears. But not always. At Farecast.com you can find the 60-day lowest-price history for some 2,000 routes, along with “buy” or “wait” recommendations based on whether its computers predict fares will rise, fall, or stay level in the coming 90 days. You can click through to purchase a ticket directly from the airline or use other Web sites to find the lowest fare.

Be flexible. If you are able to fly on as little as a few days’ notice, sign up for the e-mail alerts offered by many airlines and independent Web sites. They’ll notify you of last-minute deals or fare drops below a price you set beforehand. When you’re on a booking Web site, click on any boxes that let you extend your search to other nearby airports as well as to different travel dates and times. Any of those might result in a cheaper fare. Midweek flights tend to cost less, as do flights at less desirable times of the day, such as 6 a.m. vs. 7 a.m.

Buy direct. You can save the per-ticket online transaction fees charged by Expedia ($5), Orbitz ($5 to $12), and Travelocity ($4 to $10) by buying from the airline at its own site. Buy electronic tickets because airlines often tack on a $10 to $20 fee for paper ones. Also bear in mind that nonrefundable restricted-fare coach tickets tend to be cheapest, but they can have drawbacks, such as rules that you fly on certain days of the week or that your departure and return be a minimum number of days apart.