Updated Jan 8., 2020
Traveling is stressful. The long lines, expensive food and extensive security can be anxiety-inducing for any traveler — and that’s just the airport. There isn’t anything much worse than getting to the gate, only to discover your flight has been delayed, or worse, canceled.
“There is really no consistency ever,” said Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Company, an airline consulting firm. “Customers experience all the variability. They are always asking, ‘The airlines have been doing this for how long, and they still can’t get it right?’”
A Policygenius survey revealed one in five people say no amount of money is worth losing their seat on a flight. Some even said they would rather sit next to a crying baby then get stuck at the gate.
While there’s no guarantee your flight will leave and arrive on time, savvy travelers may want to be more considerate when picking which airline they fly with.
We came up with the Policygenius Airline Index to learn which airlines are the most and least reliable to fly on.
What we measured
The index doesn’t just measure the airline’s ability to get you to your destination on time. It also takes into account the potential for lost luggage (a surefire vacation-ruiner), customer satisfaction and cancellations.
The Policygenius Airline Index is made up of five figures, combined and weighted equally. We looked at data from the first four months of 2019 from the 10 airline marketing carriers. (A marketing carrier is defined as a carrier that’s part of a code-share agreement. They sell flights under their name, even though they are operated by another carrier.)
- On-time arrivals: Percentage of flights that have arrived on time.
- Flight cancellations: Percentage of flights canceled.
- Flight delays: Percentage of flights delayed due to circumstances within the airline’s control, including maintenance and crew problems.
- Mishandled bags: Number of mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.
- Complaints: Number of complaints per 100,000 passengers.
We combined these numbers to make the Policygenius Airline Index. Each airline is scored out of 50. A higher score means a more reliable airline.
Want to learn more? Check out our comprehensive airline-by-airline guide to fees, bumping and more.
Data source: Air Travel Consumer Report. Five of the marketing carriers have branded codeshare partners: American Airlines (Compass, Envoy, ExpressJet, Mesa, Piedmont, PSA, Republic, SkyWest), Alaska Airlines (Horizon, Peninsula, SkyWest), Delta Airlines (Compass, Endeavor, GoJet, Republic, SkyWest), Hawaiian Airlines (Empire) and United Airlines (Air Wisconsin, Commutair, ExpressJet, GoJet, Mesa, Republic, SkyWest, Trans States). This index included the branded coshare averages into the total for each marketing carrier.
Airlines are ranked out of a scale of 100, with 100 being the most reliable.
Exploring the best & worst airlines
Delta Airlines was ranked as the best airline due to high reliability and customer satisfaction. Delta’s on-time arrival average was 82.7%, and the carrier receives an average of 0.43 complaints per 100,000 passengers. Its average cancellation rate was less than 1%.
American Airlines was ranked the worst airline because of the high number of mishandled bags (eight per 1,000 passengers) and percent of flight cancellations (2.9%).
When asked for comment, a spokesperson from American Airlines said: "Our top priority is running the safest, most reliable operation in our history."
“Some airlines just don’t value your time,” said Mann. “Contractually, they have no obligation to you.”
Between all 10 carriers, the on-time arrival average was 78.9%. The average cancellation rate was 2%.
Questions about the index? You can ask in the comments below
How to travel smart
Travelers can’t control delays or cancellations. But they can make the rest of the vacation smoother by preparing financially. While we all like to splurge on vacation, there are a few ways to get your budget ready for travel.
- Make a vacation budget. Getting a sense of how much money you need to save ahead of time reduces stress. Make sure to think through all the activities you want to do and budget them in. We have a handy vacation spreadsheet here.
- Free up some extra funds. Cut back on unnecessary expenses in the months or weeks leading up to your vacation. Got old junk around the house? Consider selling it to make some extra vacation money. (Here’s how.)
- Get travel insurance. It’s a worthwhile investment. Travel insurance can financially protect you when the unexpected happens on your trip, in addition to providing health coverage and emergency aid.
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Image & graphic: Nastia Kobzarenko