The Skytrax World Airline Awards are like the Oscars of air travel. It's the largest passenger satisfaction survey for airlines in the world, covering every aspect of travel from your online check-in at home and the baggage policy to staff friendliness and onboard meals (it also takes into account reward program perks). The 2021 survey included responses from over 13 million survey respondents around the world and covering 350 different airlines, including small regional companies. Only seven U.S. airlines managed to crack the global top 100 list, earning the distinction of the highest-rated airlines in America as voted by travelers.
Even though it's ranked as No. 30 on the global list, Delta Air Lines tops the charts for American carriers. It has one of the biggest fleets of any airline in the world, operating over 5,400 daily flights to 325 different destinations in 52 countries. The airline is also a major reason that Atlanta Hartfield-Jackson Airport (ATL)—Delta's main hub—is the busiest airport in the world.
Apart from a wide network, Delta also scores high in airport lounge access, cabin features, and most importantly, reliability. Delays and cancellations are less common with Delta, so travelers can depend on the carrier for getting them to where they need to go. Delta also got high marks in the 2021 survey for how it dealt with COVID-19 and passenger safety. One area that Delta scores low on is affordability, but the higher prices come with elevated service.
The Delta SkyMiles rewards program is paired with American Express and comes with a host of travel perks. Flying with Delta already means you have a huge selection of destinations to choose from, but partnerships with other global carriers like China Airlines, Korean Air, or Virgin Atlantic offer even more options. It also includes perks like an annual companion certificate to bring a friend with you.
For frequent fliers, the name JetBlue has been synonymous with comfortable air travel for years. The Queens-based airline is the second-highest-rated American airline and comes in at No. 32 on the global ranking. JetBlue's destination network isn't as big as other major U.S. carriers, with the majority of flights servings domestic locations as well as Mexico, the Caribbean, and a few cities in Central and South America.
When it comes to in-flight services, JetBlue is the airline to beat. All JetBlue flights offer "Fly-Fi" internet access, so you can stay connected even when you're at 35,000 feet. JetBlue also has a partnership with Amazon so passengers can enjoy the full library of movies and TV shows on Amazon Prime. If you want to treat yourself to business class—dubbed "Mint" on JetBlue—then you'll be able to enjoy fully reclining seats and on-demand food service.
Another reason that travelers highly rate JetBlue is that the airline is leading the industry in reducing its environmental impact. In the summer of 2020, JetBlue became the first airline to reach carbon neutrality on all domestic flights by purchasing carbon credits to offset its emissions.
When it comes to rewards, the TrueBlue program lets up to seven travelers pool their points together so they can earn awards even faster. If you reach an annual benchmark of spending within a calendar year, it also means you're eligible to be bumped up to Mint seating on future flights.
Coming in at No. 39 on the global ranking is the original low-cost airline in the U.S., Southwest Airlines. Despite its humble beginnings, it's grown to be the largest domestic carrier in the whole country. Cost-cutting practices like removing the business class seats and eschewing the "hub system" have helped establish Southwest as one of the most affordable ways to travel to locations all across the U.S., in Mexico, and the Caribbean.
If you're looking to pay a premium for luxury travel, then Southwest isn't the airline for you. What travelers do love about Southwest is that the airline offers lots of amenities with your economy class ticket, such as two free checked bags and free flight changes up to 10 minutes before your departure. All planes have basic Wi-Fi service for messaging and email at no charge, or you can pay a little more for full internet access.
If you don't frequently travel abroad, then the Southwest Rapid Rewards program is one of the best for domestic travel. For every eight trips that you take, you get a free roundtrip flight. It's also relatively easier to reach premier-level tiers compared to other airline reward programs.
The scope of United Airlines is far and wide. Apart from its biggest hub at Chicago O'Hare Airport (ORD), United has seven other hubs around the country for seamless travel with minimal layovers, including San Francisco (SFO), Houston (IAH), and Newark (EWR) airports. United also flies to over 110 different international destinations, which is expanded even further through the Star Alliance group of which United is a founding member. Unsurprisingly, the extensive route network is one of the airline's strongest areas, earning it the No. 60 spot on the top 100 list.
The Basic Economy seating is the most affordable, but even just a small upgrade to standard Economy comes with some worthwhile conveniences, like being able to choose your own seat and bringing a carry-on bag. The passenger experience is getting a major upgrade through the United Next program that was announced in June 2021, with the biggest change being an entire fleet upgrade by 2026.
Because the network of United and its partners is so large, becoming a member of the United MileagePlus rewards program means you can use miles to fly to just about anywhere in the world. One common complaint about flying United is that there are lots of extra charges for checking a bag or changing your itinerary, but you'll be able to waive those fees by becoming an elite rewards member.
Just behind United in the global ranking comes Alaska Airlines at No. 61. Despite the name, Alaska covers a lot more than just the Last Frontier state. What started as a charter plane service to move people around Alaska has become one of America's biggest airlines, especially since buying San Francisco-based Virgin America in April 2016. The main hub was moved from Anchorage to the Seattle-Tacoma Airport (SEA), and the carrier primarily connects the West Coast with the rest of the U.S. as well as to Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Belize.
The food and drinks offered on Alaska flights all come from companies based in Alaska or Washington State, such as Starbucks coffee, Beecher's artisan cheese, Tim's Cascade potato chips, and beer from the Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau. The airline's premium class is a comfortable step up from economy but much cheaper than first class, so you can get perks like extra legroom and free alcoholic beverages without paying for a first-class ticket.
The Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is one of the rare reward programs where you still earn miles by how many miles you actually fly (most miles programs today are actually points based on how much you spend). Even though Alaska's network is more limited than other major carriers, you can redeem your miles with a long list of partners across the globe, including all of the airlines in the Oneworld alliance like American Airlines, Qantas, and British Airways, among others.
Since flying is the only practical way to get to Hawaii, it's no surprise that the island state has its own airline. The Honolulu-based company is No. 74 on the global list and the flights are really focused on bringing passengers to and from Hawaii (or for travel between islands). You can fly from most major cities in the U.S. to either of the airline's two hubs, which are Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) on Oahu and Kahului Airport (OGG) on Maui. That doesn't mean that Hawaiian Airlines only flies domestically; on the contrary, it serves as a gateway to Asia and Oceania with direct flights to Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, and other Pacific Islands.
When you're flying to Hawaii, you probably have little to complain about. Even so, Hawaiian has some of the best records among U.S. airlines for on-time departures, fewest cancelations, and baggage handling. It's also one of the few airlines that still offers full meals to economy class passengers, with the option to pay more for an upgraded meal. The menu highlights local dishes and the meals are sourced from Hawaiian companies.
If you're someone who flies to Hawaii regularly (lucky you!), the HawaiianMiles frequent flier program is a clear winner. Otherwise, the limited flight network is less than ideal if you want to travel to other destinations, although you can also use points on partner airlines like JetBlue, Japan Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic. If you rack up enough miles in one calendar year—which isn't terribly hard to do for a destination as remote as Hawaii—you'll reach Pualiani Elite status and earn all of the accompanying perks, like free checked bags and seat upgrades.
In terms of fleet size and passengers carried, American Airlines is the biggest airline in the world. Even though bigger usually translates to less personable, travelers still voted to give American a spot—No. 76—on Skytrax's list of best airlines. The company's headquarters and main hub is at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport (DFW), although nearly every major airport in the U.S. is considered an American Airlines hub. With flights to nearly 350 different destinations domestically and internationally, no airline's network is more robust than American.
You can use your phone, tablet, or laptop to stream all types of content for free, including movies and shows from Apple TV+ or even language-learning apps to prepare for your international trip. However, most American flights don't include a seatback television screen, meaning passengers are forced to use their own devices to access the entertainment system.
American's AAdvantage rewards program can be used to travel almost anywhere in the world, so understandably it's also one of the most popular frequent flier programs. When you have an AAdvantage credit card with Citibank, you easily earn points on everyday purchases, which can later be redeemed not just on American Airlines flights but with all carriers that make up the Oneworld alliance.