We're off to the the the Virgin Islands (we presume several of them) this week, and I find myself contemplating the notion of airline loyalty for the casual to semi-serious traveler. Trying to determine which airline he himself might choose to frequent, a good friend and WTF reader recently asked me which was my favorite airline. Not an unreasonable question, but a nuanced one that I began exploring last month in How (and why) to choose your preferred airline. But what if you travel anywhere from every couple months to several times a month, and live in a city where you have several major airline options? Congratulations if that sounds like you, because you're in the happy situation of getting to choose the airline that best suits your needs and tastes.
This writing is a little dense because there is a lot of ground to cover, and I promise we won't cover it all because there is just too much. My goal here is to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of each of the major U.S. carriers (with apologies to Air Canada, who we love!) to give you a little direction when making your choices. Remember, we're writing about wine and travel here... we want to help you get the most of of getting to the wine (or to whatever it is that keeps you flying)!
Alaska + Virgin America
Alphabetical order let's us get this current oddball out of the way first. This month's announcement that Alaska Airlines will acquire Virgin America has left a number of us aviation geeks scratching our heads. Both receive consistently high marks from customers, but their cultures don't seem to be an obvious fit. Alaska is like your lifelong friend who always has something wise to say, and will rarely let you down. Virgin is refreshing, cool, and eminently fun. They also fly exactly zero of the same types of planes. These two airlines are still separate entities, so this merger is still in its infancy. We'll know more in the coming year, but for now it makes sense that we start talking about them together.
Good for: West Coasters, particularly those in Seattle (where Alaska is based), San Francisco (Virgin's home, for now), pretty much anywhere in Alaska where planes go, and those whose only real interaction with the East Coast occurs in major cities such as Boston, New York, and DC.
Dubious for: Anyone who doesn't live on the West Coast, travelers who frequent strange places and smaller cities, those who hate the idea of getting super attached to the culture of one or the other before the cultures invariably merge and change to accommodate one another.
American Airlines (AA) and US Airways completed their merger in late 2015 to become the world's largest airline by number of passengers each year. I fly American more than any other airline because, well, geography; we can see an AA hub (Washington Reagan National Airport) from our dining room window. I've mixed feelings because familiarity breeds fondness, and they have a strong loyalty rewards program, but have at times struggled with the customer service (particularly over the phone).
Good for: Easterners, Southwesterners, and folks who live in the orbits of Chicago or Miami; travelers who fly to obscure or smaller cities in those places, who want to spend their layovers in American's Admirals Club airline lounges, who enjoy the Caribbean and South America, who are OK using American's partner airlines British Airways and Iberia for some European travel, and who think it's fun to play "Where's Waldo" with historically painted planes seen randomly around the country.
Dubious for: Pacific Northwesterners, people who don't care about going to obscure places in North Carolina, Georgians, heavy Europe and Asia travelers.
Operating the world's largest hub out of the world's largest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta, GA, Delta Airlines wins the Southeast United States. American makes a good attempt from their large hub in Charlotte, NC... but Delta still wins. It also might be all in my head, but I've always felt that a bit of southern charm rubs off in subtle ways: I've rarely had a poor experience with Delta crew members on the plane. They've also got a very strong international system.
Good for: Southeasterners, Northwesterners who want to fly an airline that goes to far more places than Alaska (both operate a hub in Seattle), those looking for a very well balanced pan-American route system, international travelers going to places other than the southern Americas, frequent travelers between DC and NYC or NYC and BOS (but not DC and BOS), anyone who feels nostalgic about the old McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series planes (you know, the ones with the jets mounted in the rear beneath the tail).
Dubious for: Mid-Atlantic folk who don't want to always have to fly through Atlanta before they can get anywhere, Bostonians who want to go to DC (and vice versa), Washingtonians in general, Texans, Chicagoans. Delta's well-balanced domestic route network (no large region lacks a Delta hub) makes it a great overall choice but also an extremely poor choice for several specific major cities where it just doesn't have as strong a presence as the competition.
Ah, yes, the gold standard in airlines that just make you smile -- a lot -- about whatever trip you're on. It's hard to note like jetBlue, because their positive and light hearted corporate culture just shines through so much of what they do. They're also best of breed if you're trying to get to the Caribbean, so are likely carrying a lot of passengers who are excited about their trip.
Good for: People with a light hearted sense of humor... also Bostonians, New Yorkers, Floridians (and Washingtonians to a lesser extent) whose travels don't usually take them too far beyond the East Coast and Caribbean, and who don't mind not having a first or business class option (but who'd enjoy some of the most legroom in the industry). Conversely, jetBlue is also good for frequent travelers between JFK / BOS and LAX / SFO who want to use (and pay for) the amazing "Mint" first class product.
Dubious for: Travelers who live pretty much anywhere other than New York, Boston, Florida, Washington DC, and the Caribbean... or who live in one of those places and travel often to obscure destinations and smaller cities. Also, anyone for whom lack of airline lounges and first class on most flights is a deal breaker need not apply.
Ditto the same sort of lighthearted fun to be around atmosphere on jetBlue! Southwest is the airline really began to remake commercial aviation beginning in the 1970s. Southwest loyalists love the fact that they fly only the same Boeing 737 aircraft (so you know what you're going to get), and that there are no seat assignments. Passengers get rank order in which they get to board, and then choose their own seats.
Good for: Travelers who enjoy flight attendants who tell jokes... also the huge number of Americans who live in smaller cities such as Baltimore and St. Louis where Southwest has build up an incredible presence offering lower cost flights to more destinations than the "legacy" carriers (American, Delta, and United).
Dubious for: Frequent travelers who enjoy the perks of the true loyalty programs offered by American, Delta, and United, or those who enjoy airport lounges; those who feel like the boarding lineup is more like a cattle call than a great way to get there / want the certainly of an assigned seat; international travelers.
Though United carries slightly fewer passengers than American or Delta, they fly to slightly more destinations. They lack the big southeastern operation base that is Atlanta for Delta and Charlotte for American, but otherwise operate a well balanced domestic route and best of breed service in the Pacific. Meghan flew them just last week and has felt that they've really "upped their customer service game", a statement which if proven true would alone make them worthy of your consideration.
Good for: Residents of New Jersey, Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, and Houston; frequent travelers to Pacific islands; travelers who want to frequent the American edition of the world's largest Airline Alliance (Star Alliance), and thus with the most access to destinations via their partner's networks. Oh, also, anyone who would like to try what Meghan last week deemed to be "the airline industry's best free snacks" (I question this claim until I taste it!).
Dubious for: Pacific Northwesterners, Southeasterners, frequent Caribbean travelers, and Northeasterners who rely on the near hourly service between Boston, New York, and Washington that is on offer from American, Delta, and jetBlue. And, finally, anyone who finds Concourse C-D at Washington Dulles International and large swaths of Newark International airports to be a varying combination of inconvenient or dark / depressing should look to one of those two city's many other airline options.