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

By | February 27th, 2016

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?

Related story:   Weekend survey: Should peanuts be banned from planes?

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?

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