Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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How the Airlines Rate Now (I Think)
September 22, 2016 -- Airlines have so completely eviscerated the frequent flier programs that they've effectively eliminated any pretense of returning your loyalty. It's a transactional world now and we're just flying in it.
But as I suggested a few months ago, that's not as terrible as it sounds. As airlines have gutted their programs, they've freed us to buy price and schedule on each itinerary and choose the perks we want to buy and airlines we want to fly.
If you've been a prisoner of one airline, however, you may not actually know the state of your former carrier's competitors. Allow me to bring you up to date with my best capsule assessments of your current major options. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I think these descriptions are fair for all fliers.
Once considered a quaint outlier with quirky habits like placing Bible verses on meal trays, Alaska Airlines has moved aggressively into the big leagues. It's not only the purchase of Virgin America (NASDAQ: VA), a deal expected to close by the end of the year, or a pending transcontinental expansion. Alaska also has nimbly deflected a multi-year onslaught from Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) at its hometown Seattle-Tacoma hub. That's because Alaska fliers remain stubbornly loyal.
They appreciate the on-time performance — Alaska Air is second overall for timeliness during the 12 months ending in July— the better-than-average in-flight service and consistent (mostly Boeing 737) fleet. Coming soon: more legroom in first class and a spacious premium economy service. Also a big plus: the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan remains relatively generous for earnings and flexible for redemptions. It also has a panoply of domestic and international partners.
Negatives: Alaska Air has an annoying habit of changing frequent flier rules without notice and the airline's management has yet to explain how, when or even if Virgin America will be integrated.
The American Airlines-US Airways operational merger last year avoided the big and obvious problems that plagued the 2012 United Airlines-Continental combination. But it's been all downhill from there.
American (NASDAQ: AAL) is now the least-timely major carrier, finishing nearly five points below the industry average in July. For the last 12 months ending in July, it finished seven points below Alaska Air and Delta Air Lines. Cancellations are sky high, too, especially at Envoy, American's wholly owned commuter carrier. Meanwhile, the domestic fleet is a mess since American has dragged its feet on installing Main Cabin Extra service on former US Airways jets. It's all been compounded by a substantial devaluation of AAdvantage, the frequency program that had been winning American customers.
Good news? American has upgraded business class cabins on many international jets, in-flight food and snacks are marginally better than before and the airline continues to aggressively price-match low-fare carriers.
Delta Air Lines
Generally speaking, Delta runs the best operation of the three large legacy airlines. It cancels the fewest flights. Despite an ugly meltdown last month, Delta remains punctual, although its on-time ratings have slumped. It was the timeliest U.S. carrier during the third quarter of last year, but slipped to second in the fourth and has run third during the first half of the year.
Although its fleet is aging, the cabins are clean and in noticeably better shape than many United or American aircraft. Delta also has led the market in returning small grace notes like snacks and amenities to customers. Its network of airport clubs seem more up-to-date, attractive and comfortable than domestic competitors.
Delta's biggest weaknesses? Arrogant management that seems unwilling to understand competitive and operational advantages are historically tenuous. And, of course, the atrocious Delta SkyMiles plan that hides its award chart from members, rapaciously prices premium class seats at peak periods and has all but eliminated first class upgrades for elite fliers.
Sixteen years after its founding, JetBlue Airways (NYSE: JBLU) is attempting a remarkable transformation. The all-coach carrier added a business class product called Mint. It's fabulous, with huge seats that fold down to lie-flat beds, creative meals and fast WiFi. The problem? It's unclear how many routes can support Mint and whether JetBlue's business travel negatives will limit the product's overall appeal. After all, what good's a top-line product at the front of the plane when there are no airport clubs, no international flights, a lifeless frequent flier plan and a spotty domestic network?
JetBlue's coach cabin isn't what it was, either. Legroom is being cut and the airline's checked luggage charges and fee structure isn't as friendly as the old days. Still, JetBlue's biggest problem is that it can't run planes on-time. Its 67.8 percent rating in July was better only than Frontier, the low-fare/high fee clone of Spirit Airlines. For the 12 months ended in July, JetBlue finished more than six percent below the national average.
Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV) these days concentrates on eliminating perceived travel pain points. You can check two bags for free and there are no ticket change fees. There's still no premium class or seat assignments, of course, but cattle-car boarding is long gone and you can buy or earn early boarding privileges to score a window or aisle seat.
In-flight, Southwest isn't fancy, but it is consistent, with an all-Boeing 737 fleet that eliminates guessing about how the plane layout works and where decent seats are located. The route network is expanding to Latin America and the Caribbean, too.
Downsides? Unless you book far in advance, Southwest isn't nearly as cheap as it once was because free bags and ticket changes aren't really free, just bundled into the fare. Other issues? Southwest's on-time rating is mediocre and the frequent flier program, Rapid Rewards, isn't all that rewarding — unless you fly often enough to score a Companion Pass.
When you've been Worst. Airline. Ever. for more than a decade, it's hard to go anywhere but up. Yet up for United (NYSE: UAL) has been a tortured process.
The new chief executive, Oscar Munoz, appointed a year ago, promptly missed months with a heart attack and heart transplant. All of the recent in-flight improvements (better coffee and snacks) and the impending business class upgrade were actually cooked up by previous management. Munoz finally has his own team in place and he recently bought peace with the last of United's fractious labor unions. That means in-flight crew morale is better, but the physical tools they have to work with are tatty.
Airport clubs desperate need an upgrade, the fleet is aging, the route network is messy and United has yet to commit to a genuine premium-economy cabin on international flights. However, the frequent flier program, MileagePlus, remains a comparative bright spot. Earnings have been reduced, but the award chart is competitively priced and availability on United's long list of international partners is usually excellent.