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Delta named best airline for third year running — but as leisure travel rebounds, all the carriers are competing hard for your business

Southwest wins high scores for customer satisfaction, American carries the most passengers.

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It's official: Delta is the best U.S. airline for the third year running, according to the folks at The Points Guy. The travel news website graded 10 U.S. airlines — from legacy carriers like American and United to low-cost providers like Frontier and Allegiant — on a variety of categories, from the size of their route networks to the quality of their airport lounges.

In almost every category, Delta was in the middle or at the top of the leaderboard, and that consistency was what led to its win, says Nick Ewen, senior editor at The Points Guy. "When you think about everything that it has done — its investment in its fleet, the in-flight experience, the lounge access, the quality of the Sky Club [lounge] experience — it's that consistency across all of the different elements that we looked at that really allowed Delta to push its way to the top."

Best U.S. airlines of 2021

Here's how the major domestic carriers fared in The Points Guy assessment:

  1. Delta
  2. Southwest
  3. United
  4. Alaska
  5. American
  6. JetBlue
  7. Hawaiian
  8. Spirit
  9. Frontier
  10. Allegiant

But if you look beyond the top-line ranking and pick apart the data, there's something for everybody in this year's list. Covid's shakeup of the industry means savvy travelers can own the post-pandemic skies.

For example, Southwest came in a very close second to Delta, earning top marks for customer service and the ease with which frequent flyers can redeem their reward points. But depending on what matters most when you travel, there's pretty much something for everyone in TPG's findings.

"Right now, the consumers are really in the driver's seat," Ewen says. "Airlines need them to get back in the skies desperately — not just domestically, but internationally."

American scores lowest among legacy carriers — but is most bullish about getting back in the air

Delta and Southwest may be the darlings of seasoned travelers, but American is currently king of the skies when it comes to the sheer volume of passengers that it's moving.

For domestic routes in July, American offered about 20% more available seat miles — an industry standard that multiplies the distance an airplane travels by the number of seats for sale on that flight — than both Delta and Southwest, according to Grow's analysis of scheduling data from Cirium.

"American has really stepped out and said, 'We're going to come back strongly,'" says airline consultant George Hamlin. That bullish outlook will continue into the fall, with Cirium data showing that American has 30% more volume scheduled for October than Delta and Southwest.

If you're searching for flights any time in the near future, chances are that you'll see more options from American than from other carriers. And while American placed fifth on TPG's ranking — the lowest of the big four U.S. carriers — it was still in the top half of the 10 airlines TPG looked at.

Right now, carriers are competing for leisure travelers

The U.S. airline industry hit major turbulence during the pandemic: At one point in April 2020, the number of travelers screened at airport security checkpoints across the country dropped more than 90% from 2019. However, the number of people traveling has been steadily growing since vaccines became widely available, and the big four airlines — American, Delta, Southwest, and United — have now met or exceeded their pre-pandemic passenger volumes on domestic flights.

Most (if not all) of that rebound has been driven by leisure travelers, Ewen says. "With the expanded vaccination rates, the leisure travel market has jumped back. The big challenge for airlines is how business travelers are going to play a role in the overall turnaround of the industry."

Before the pandemic, business travelers accounted for a small slice of the total number of passengers on flights, but their preference for higher-end seats contributed a significant amount of airlines' revenue. While the potential resurgence of Covid will be the airlines' primary concern as they fly into the fall, the possible collapse of business travel in a remote-work era is what could make or break them, Hamlin says.

"A relatively small number of business travelers paying relatively high fares subsidize the leisure travelers who are paying very low fares," Hamlin says. That could be an issue if "there's only so much business travel to go around."

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The fallout will likely be felt hardest by travelers who rely on miles and credit-card points to fly. Carriers moving the goal posts for their loyalty programs is nothing new, and with business travelers failing to return, there's even more incentive to push out customers who aren't paying cash.

"Use your points and miles sooner rather than later," Ted Rossman, analyst at CreditCards.com, recently told Grow. "They're not going to gain value over time; most likely they'll probably lose value."

How you can make the most of the uncertainty in the skies

Summer leisure travelers have pushed airfares back up from their pandemic lows, with ticket prices jumping almost 25% compared to a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That dramatic price bump has been a significant contributor to the current high rates of inflation.

But savvy travelers should keep their eyes out for promotions heading into the fall, as the summer crowds fade and airlines get hungrier for paying customers to fill their seats. With business travelers still largely out of the picture, airlines will likely be bending over backward to create good experiences for leisure travelers, Ewen says.

"We've seen reports of horrendously long hold times and confusion around using vouchers," Ewen says. "All it takes is one really negative experience with an airline for a customer to say, 'You know what, I'm no longer interested in doing business with you again.'"

And losing customers is a risk they really can't afford right now.

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