Once and for all, what is the world’s worst airline?

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When people ask me to name the worst airline in the world — and they ask me often — I think I know what they really want.

They’re not interested in a lecture about Ariana Afghan Airways’ dismal safety record. They want to know which domestic carrier to avoid, and they’re not worried about safety (that’s a given); they’re concerned about service.

Fair question.

When I posted a list of the most hated airlines in the world, which was meant as nothing more than a conversation starter, I got into a little trouble with the airline insiders. Since it was this week’s top post, let’s scroll back to the story and the reader response — which went something like this:

  • Where’s United Airlines? (Don’t worry, it made the list.)
  • What’s with the disclaimers? (A survey with disclaimers? That’s a first.)
  • I disagree with the methodology. (Feel free to disagree. Or to click away. It’s a free market for content!)

I think some airline apologists objected to any debate of bad airlines, because, you know, these companies are just so misunderstood. I mean, as long as they operate safely (on time would be nice, but not necessary), shouldn’t they be allowed to charge whatever fares they want, squeeze as many seats on the plane as regulators allow, and subject you to whatever adhesion contract their lawyers can write? Why, yes!

Personally, I think a debate about the worst domestic airlines has some merit. It’s not as if the worst carriers will advertise their badness, unless maybe it’s Spirit.

But how do you determine who is the worst?

I normally start with the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), which suggests that, indeed, Spirit is the worst.

The bottom three airlines:

1. Spirit Airlines
2. Frontier Airlines
3. United Airlines

ACSI tracks the slow, sad decline of these airlines over time, leaving no question of their mediocrity.

It’s also helpful to compare those statistics to complaints received by the Department of Transportation. The 2015 numbers are just out and they suggest that American Airlines is the most complained-about carrier in terms of absolute numbers. But Spirit received more complaints on a per-passenger basis.

1. American Airlines
2. United Airlines
3. Spirit Airlines

How about J.D. Power’s airline survey? I covered the last one for Fortune, and the worst are in line with the other studies:

1. Spirit Airlines
2. Frontier Airlines
3. United Airlines

I could go on, but the results seem pretty clear: If by “the world” you mean “America” and if by “airline” you mean “airline service,” then Spirit seems like the hands-down winner, with a little competition from Frontier. Meanwhile, among so-called “legacy” airlines, American and United are vying for the title of worst.

We need to have this discussion. If nothing else, this site can warn passengers that all airlines are not created equal. Even though they operate safely and sometimes on-time, there are huge differences inside the plane.

So now you know.

Which is the worst airline?

View Results

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • AAGK

    Hawaiian

  • Alan Gore

    United has had its problems, but I’m really surprised that it rates lower than Allegiant.

  • Flyonpa

    Allegiant/Spirit/Frontier are my bottom, But really don’t know how bad they are since I would never book a flight on them. Frontier use to be nice until they changed there biz model.

  • Matt

    I guess it is worthwhile having a discussion about worst airlines, no real objection. But personally I’d prefer data that comes from reliable sources and uses a reasonable method. The one listed here certainly fit the bill, the one from the earlier post, certainly not.

    And the data here seem to back the general sense. Spirit and Frontier at the bottom. The earlier survey put Delta and American below them which really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    Btw, I’m not sure why my comments from the earlier article make me an “airline apologist”, I just think questionable data/method pushed by a company with a clear conflict of interest (the earlier survey was commissioned by a charter airline company, hmmm wonder what they trying to achieve) should be treated with some skepticism.

  • Bill___A

    Discussions are fine, I am not an “airline apologist” but I can understand how they would have issues with misleading headlines and unsound methodologies, which were both the main parts of the previous article. Although it says in Chris’s profile now that he likes misleading headlines, to me, it takes away credibility.

    As for this current vote, I don’t know, because I have stayed away from what I think are the “worst airlines”. As only American based airlines are shown here, maybe it would be a poll about the “Worst American Airlines”.
    My vote, for the worst Airline I try to avoid, would be for Skywest. I don’t see them on the list, but on my list, they are a standout as an airline to avoid.

  • Bill___A

    Anybody who disagrees is labelled as an “apologist”.

  • jim6555

    Because it carries fewer passengers than the other airlines that were ranked, some surveys do not include Allegiant. I would definitely put Allegiant below United.

  • MarkKelling

    Is Skywest flying their own routes under their own name? I think they would be included with the majors they fly for, United, Delta, Alaska, and so on.

  • MarkKelling

    Care to elaborate?

    Compared to the others on the list, Hawaiian is a fantastic airline. At least it has been every time I have flown them.

  • Tom McShane

    Yep, it’s a plot to keep the Truth from getting out. And that Truth is that airlines love their customers and would never mistreat them.

  • Tom McShane

    Allegiant sound low-rent, but its model is really fascinating. They fly from one obscure airport to another like Huntington, W.Va to Samford, Fla. It seems like you can only book one leg at a time and that each leg requires a separate ticket.

    Reminds me of when I was a boy and would fly Piedmont from Louisville to Beckley, W. Va. nonstop. Two engine props. I suspect that Piedmont pre-deregulation and Allegiant today would be vastly different experiences

  • Helene Apper

    I have to frequently fly from ABQ to PSP. I have two choices. American and United. United tickets are commonly $100 less than American but I fly American each and every time. Why? Because United doesn’t understand the term “on time”. Their planes are falling apart. Their routing is ridiculous and their service defines the work “sucks”. I gave United three chances (we have a 3 chance rule in my house). Not once were they on time. Once I got stuck in LA overnight and the ONLY option they gave me was to stay in a hotel in a very questionable part of town and they would fly me out the next day at 6:30 a.m. arriving in ABQ at 5:00 p.mish. I had to go through Oakland. A hour hour and 45 minute flight turned into an all day ordeal. I did not take that option but walked across the airport and got a Southwest flight at 9:00 a.m. the next morning. Fortunately I have family in LA who rescued me from the airport and let me stay overnight. I then had to incur Uber charges to get back to the airport in the morning. United reimbursed me for the Los Angeles to ABQ leg – not for my whole ticket – not for the whole flight. I had to pay full fare for Southwest and since United has no contract with them, they refused to pay those charges. They did not give me a meal voucher. But above and beyond that, the customer service at LAX was so rude to not just me, but everyone affected by that flight. The only way I would ever fly United again is with a personal apology from the President and a free first class ticket.

  • jim6555

    I flew on Piedmont several times in the 1960’s. It was indeed a much different experience than Allegiant. The Convair 240 series prop planes didn’t go as fast or fly as high as today’s jets but they had comfortable seats, you didn’t have to pay for a soft drink or a snack and the flight attendants were always friendly.

  • Tom McShane

    Yah, once we were late getting to the Louisville airport. Heard an announcement asking my mother to please get to the gate, as they were ready to depart. I had the impression they held the plane a minute or 2 to get us on.

  • Tom McShane

    I think what you are saying, is that it is hard out there for a pimp. I especially like the employee-owned fiction

  • mmbNaples

    I struggle to understand why Frontier has such a bad rep. I’ve never had a flight cancelled or even late. Their FAs are not mean, seem helpful if I need them. The seats are not smaller than most, although shorter than Southwest’s. Prices for my routes RSW>DEN mostly are usually less than Southwest, especially now that they have bundled baggage fees+seat fees+no fee for changes or refund into what they call Thw Works.

  • nativenewyorker

    Why would you headline this blog “world’s worst airline” when the list if confined to American airlines?

  • Tricia K

    Island Air in Hawaii. Not only did the pilot bounce the landing so hard that he damaged the landing gear (my husband told me that the pilot’s decision to abort the landing after we bounced saved a collision–glad he didn’t tell me until later), then they kept us stuck in a crappy
    terminal in Honolulu with no status updates, they let a later flight go out in our plane and made us wait another two hours to get us to our destination. When we asked why, they insisted it was a different plane (my husband loves planes and noted the ID number on the tail). Never again.

  • Peter

    I have two worst airline categories:

    “discount” airlines: Spirit, Allegiant, Frontier; if we get you there fine, if not, tough, here’s your money back and you can be stranded. Unless cost is the absolute priority (and Southwest is usually pretty competitively priced), I can’t imagine flying them.

    “major airlines”: American and United in a race to the bottom; we will eventually get you there, but just sit down and shut up.

    I won’t fly the bottom three in any circumstance. I will fly American or United if there are no other reasonable options (and by reasonable, I am willing to extend my trip by 2 hours or so to avoid flying them).

    I happily fly Delta, Virgin America, JetBlue or SouthWest, but while I used to try to concentrate my loyalty miles, I just don’t care any more. They get so devalued and what you get is such a lower quality product, I just don’t care.

    Frankly I much prefer flying internationally (even in economy) than domestic. Cathay, Singapore, Virgin Atlantic, Qantas and Air New Zealand have all been great experiences.

    Flying used to be more than just transportation. I daresay it was once almost an adventure, exciting, fun (anyone remember Delta’s ice cream sundaes in first class, or the United’s brief buffet in the sky?). Now it is a flying bus, and you’re lucky to get to your destination when scheduled. Passengers (in many cases) are stressed, tired and unhappy, and so are the flight attendants.

  • AAGK

    The actual experience was fine, great even. I am not sure I fully understand the issue myself and it’s definitely too long boring and for this format. It involves fare increases charged to my ticket that made my ticket over $3000 while my partner was charged $1400 for the same exact flights. We made changes at the same exact time with the same agent and sat next to each other both ways. I started with a ticket that cost 3 times his original ticket so common sense suggests my ticket was far less restrictive and I would have less fare increases (our new routes were 50% shorter).. They also charged us at least 16 different phone fees of $25 including several trips we never even booked, just in error. I am still sorting it all out.

  • AAGK

    I’m considering submitting the issue to Elliott, actually but I will wait to see what happens with the credit card disputes first. The airline engaged me for a month and then ceased communication when we reached an impasse. if I didn’t have my partner’s tickets as a barometer for the fares, I would be stuck with their claim as to the price.