These Were the Best Airlines in the U.S. in 2019. What Are They Doing Right?

We all have our favorite airline, but what does the industry think are the top performers in air travel? Read More

Well, U.S. airlines aren't the best around, but they still have some notable virtues. (Source: iStock / Roger Utting Photography)

In late 2019, Skytrax released its yearly ranking of the best overall airlines in the world, as well as the best airlines in specific categories. Here’s the sad truth: U.S. airlines didn’t really enjoy top billing. Let’s take a look at the ones that ranked in the top 10, however, and see what they’re doing right — it might give us hope for 2020 and beyond.

Top 10 for Inflight Entertainment: United (#7)

Inflight entertainment has been a big focus for United. (Source: iStock / Tokarsky)
Inflight entertainment has been a big focus for United. (Source: iStock / Tokarsky)

You may be surprised to see United ranking at all in this category, but there’s one reason why it did: options. Not every United flight gives you multiple entertainment outlets, but more and more of them do. On many flights, you can watch TV and movies directly from the seatback monitor, or stream the same shows/movies on your personal devices. Plus, they give you free earbuds, free DIRECTV (on select flights), and support more personal electronic devices for streaming that almost any other North American airline.

Another boost to their ranking: United recently launched a fleet of planes with a revamped entertainment system that includes plenty of games, shows, movies, podcasts, and music offered through an easy-to-use system. Heck, they even have relaxation music for those who just need soothing tunes to doze off.

Learn more at united.com.

Top 10 for Airline Staff in North America: Delta (#1)

Need help? Delta's got you covered. (Source: iStock / Anouchka)
Need help? Delta’s got you covered. (Source: iStock / Anouchka)

The quality of an airline’s staff is always a bit hard to pinpoint, but there’s something about the Delta team that really gets it right (most of the time). Why? A few reasons.

First, Delta makes a big deal of its internal honors/awards — including the annual Chairmen’s Club nominees. This appreciation makes staff feel valued which, in turn, increases job satisfaction and motivation.

The staff is also strongly encouraged to be active in their communities. Many of them volunteer with vets, students, and the marginalized to impact the cities in which they live and work. This ethos of “greater good” is also strongly felt on the job; staff recognize that working together for every customer is more than just a job description; it’s a mission.

We could go on, but you get the idea. Delta makes their company about more than shuffling passengers to and fro; this shows in how they treat everyone from the frequent first-classer to the once-in-a-lifetime economy newbie.

Find out more about the Delta mission and ethos by visiting delta.com.

Top 10 for Low-Cost Airlines: Southwest (#4)

Southwest buzzes in and out of airports on a tight schedule. (Source: iStock / Angel Di Bilio)
Southwest buzzes in and out of airports on a tight schedule. (Source: iStock / Angel Di Bilio)

When Southwest was still a small, but fast-growing airline, the world wanted to know: How could it continually undercut other airlines? Rumors ran for a while about a gas contract they got on the cheap, but those only last so long and Southwest continues to offer fares at a lower price than many of its competitors. How?

The answer isn’t much of a secret anymore, but Southwest can arguably be credited with creating (and since, perfecting) the low-cost airline model. For starters, the airline favors second-tier airports that don’t cost as much to fly into. Second, their entire fleet is comprised of one airplane model — which they can order with bulk discounts. Third, they emphasize shorter flights with quicker turn-arounds; this maximizes the time they spend in the air, making passengers happy and stretching their profits. They don’t sit on these, though; to keep the formula working, they kick some of it back to passengers in the form of low-cost fares.

There’s more where that came from, and Simple Flying mag does a good job of spelling it out. Investopedia also has a solid article about their business model.

Top 10 for Regional Airlines: jetBlue (#3)

One of jetBlue's highlights: its concourse at JFK. (Source: iStock / littleny)
One of jetBlue’s highlights: its concourse at JFK. (Source: iStock / littleny)

Some airlines stretch themselves too thin, too fast by tacking on long routes early in their tenure. If that’s the goal, perfecting short legs would likely be the ideal first step. Some airlines, however, stop there, leaning on regional routes they know they can master. Enter jetBlue.

The management team at jetBlue realized something early on: If they focused mostly on shorter, regional routes, creature comforts would not be as vital to passengers. In fact, they might actually prefer to spend less on a plane ticket and while away a couple, quick-passing hours on a plane without WiFi or streaming entertainment. This cost-saving model was key to jetBlue’s early success, and continues to work for them in spades.

They also have focused their attention on ongoing improvements. Troubles with delayed flights earned them some bad press in 2018, but since then, they have revamped their boarding process and adjusted their schedules to allow for more turn-around time at airports — especially busy ones like JFK.

In short, jetBlue isn’t sexy, but it’s increasingly becoming a reliable regional shuttle on the East Coast. Read up on all their current and ongoing improvements at jetblue.com.

Top 10 for Most Improved Airlines: United (#7)

United has worked hard to introduce new perks to its premier travelers. (Source: iStock / Anouchka)
United has worked hard to introduce new perks to its premier travelers. (Source: iStock / Anouchka)

If we’re honest, United had a rough go of it after the merger with Continental in 2010. Flight delays, strikes, run-down aircraft, and a less-than-cheerful staff didn’t do them any favors, stoking the ire of passengers across the globe. Fortunately, management recognized the issue and put in serious effort to rectify the airline’s growing problems.

As noted above, United has worked to bring their fleet up to modern standards with on-board amenities that set them apart from the crowd. There has also been a spate of new trainings for on-board crew, new amenities added for business and first classes, and an improvement in on-time flights (though it’s still not stellar).

A few other things to note: United has put some money into refurbishing its frequent flyer lounges and main concourses across the country, working to deliver a top-notch experience to passengers. There’s still plenty to be done, but these steps forward presage even greater things.

The one catch: The airline is still suffering from strikes. We’ll see what the future holds on that front, but for now, take a look at what’s new and improved at United at united.com.