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Best & worst airlines

Virgin America makes its debut at the top of our list

Consumer Reports magazine: July 2013
Virgin America, which has expanded to 21 cities, has comfy seats even in coach.
Photo: Benjamin Eye

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If you’re tired of airline flights that leave you too frazzled to enjoy your trip, we have a new recommendation for you. Virgin America, a newcomer to our Ratings, got a clear thumbs-up from readers in our latest survey.

In an era of airlines changing, merging, and inventing new fees, getting the best deal hasn’t gotten any easier. But we’ll tell you how to search for the best fares and what you’ll pay in fees from the major carriers. We also have insights from more than 16,000 readers who told us about a total of 31,732 domestic flights in our survey, conducted in February by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

One of the things they told us was that they really liked flying on Virgin America. “The leather seat cushions are so nice in coach, there’s no reason to fly first class,” says Janice Dunn, who answered the survey and lives in Palm Desert, Calif.

Two other airlines receive high marks for baggage handling. But even more important, they’re the only carriers on our list that let you check one or two bags free on domestic flights. The free bags help explain why they’re among the top airlines we rated.

Check-in was a breeze on Southwest, and readers enjoyed the staff’s onboard service. But it was dinged on in-flight entertainment, an area where Virgin America and JetBlue shined. Southwest offers wireless entertainment on your device. JetBlue outscored Southwest on cabin cleanliness and seating comfort; it gives all passengers a couple of extra inches of leg room compared with most other airlines.

Hawaiian Airlines received high marks for check-in ease, cabin service, and cleanliness. And readers liked the way it handled their bags. Not-so-hot: Hawaiian’s in-flight entertainment.

On the other end of the spectrum, Spirit Airlines received one of the lowest overall scores for any company we’ve ever rated. “Spirit is the only no-frills airline left with fares that can be 90 percent less than other carriers’,” says George Hobica, founder and editor of Airfarewatchdog, which tracks airline deals. But it also charges a wide array of fees, including $10 to $19 to book a flight; $3 for a soda, a juice, or a bag of M&Ms; and $35 to $100 per carry-on bag.

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