Best & worst airlines

Southwest is tops and US Airways trails in our latest survey

Last reviewed: June 2011
Illustration of a jet with people's heads in the windows
Illustration by David Senior

During the first successful airplane flight in 1903, Orville Wright had to lie on top of a wing, next to the motor, in the open air. He might feel right at home on many of today's airliners. Though pilots and passengers now get to ride inside the plane, comfort remains a sore point, according to a new survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

Almost 15,000 readers told us about their experiences on 29,720 domestic round-trip flights in the previous 12 months. Eight of the 10 airlines they rated (available to subscribers) received low scores for seating comfort. Only JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines did better. They also topped our list overall. (In late April, consumers received some good news—the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a set of sweeping protections for airline passengers.)

Other quality-of-flight measures also got low marks from our readers, including cabin-crew service, cleanliness, and in-flight entertainment. The proliferation of added fees further contributes to passengers' low opinion of today's flying experience, and even to their decision of whether to fly at all, as we explain in Carriers continue to squeeze with fees.

But some carriers have done a better job than others, as evidenced by a wide difference in overall satisfaction scores, from Southwest's lofty 87 to US Airways' lowly 61. Southwest was the only airline to receive top marks for check-in ease and the service provided by its cabin crews. Passengers also gave the airline high grades for cabin cleanliness and baggage handling. The latter might reflect the fact that Southwest is the only airline we rated that lets you check two bags free of charge. But bags three, four, and beyond will cost you $50 each. And like most other carriers, Southwest charges extra for items over its size and weight limits. (Our survey was conducted before Southwest's well-publicized problems this past April with cracks in several of its planes.)

JetBlue, which ranked second in overall satisfaction, was the only airline to outscore Southwest for seating comfort, possibly because it gives passengers more room than they're accustomed to in this era of tightly packed planes. JetBlue's coach seats are 32 to 38 inches from the seat directly ahead, while coach seats on most other carriers are just 31 inches apart. JetBlue was also the lone carrier on our list to earn top scores for in-flight entertainment; its seatback TV screens offer passengers 36 channels.

Bottom-ranked US Airways occupies the same unenviable spot on our list as it did in 2007, when we last assessed airlines. In addition to its low overall score, survey respondents gave it the worst marks of any airline for cabin-crew service.

Our 2007 Ratings, incidentally, covered 18 airlines. This year that number is down to 10, due at least in part to industry consolidation. Next time around there might be even fewer airlines. United and Continental merged last October, though they are operating as separate airlines for the time being. Southwest and AirTran have also announced plans to merge, pending government approval.