Airline rankings often are based on features like on-time performance or frequent flier flexibility. … [+]
Rankings of airline service appear about every quarter. Some of their developers, like Skytrax, give awards regularly. Some just evaluate the U.S. while others are worldwide. Like all things we buy, airlines provide different levels of service and some do it better than others. So having a ranking that evaluates many factors objectively is helpful, and often interesting.
Curiously, though, most airline rankings never include price as one of their attributes, or include it only equally to other facets of the service. The implication in this is that every airline charges the same price, or at least without considering price airline A is better than airline B. That’s like a survey saying that a BMW 7-Series is a better car than a Ford Focus, but failing to tell you that you could buy three to five Focuses for the price of a single big BMW. Shouldn’t rankings reflect value?
Author John Guaspari, in his book “I Know It When I See It,” defines value as the simple equation of Got/Paid. Since value has what you pay as part of its term, Guaspari goes on further to say that “value for the money” is like saying that Abe Lincoln was “tall for his height.” By its definition, value can appear at all price points. No one would suggest that McDonald’s MCD food matches the quality of Del Frisco’s, but many people would say there is better value in a $7 McDonald’s meal than the $89 Del Frisco’s meal. The “paid” in this example would mean that Del Frisco’s is almost 13 times as expensive as the McDonald’s meal, so the food would have to be more than 13 times better for the “Got” to make Del Frisco’s a better value. For some, this may be the case, but not for all.
When someone else buys the ticket, typically a company, travelers will pick their airline mostly on schedule, frequent flier affinity, or choice of amenities available. But more people travel for leisure than for business, and for these cases the price of the trip overwhelms all other factors. Surveys done annually show this, where price tends to beat factors including time of the flight, wi-fi available, or even the airline’s reputation. Since the price paid is an intrinsic part of value, is it possible to define the “best airlines” without including this? And yet, almost every ranking does exactly that.
Most airline rankings look at operational, onboard service, seat comfort, baggage delivery, and frequent flier attractiveness to determine the best and worst airlines. On these criteria, typically longer-haul, full service airlines tend to do well while more budget, smaller airlines tend to not look as good. The popular JD Power awards do consider prices as part of their ranking but equally weight things like reservations. The Points Guy looks at a lot of factors too, but smartly ranks airlines for different features. If a particular feature is more important to you, this is more helpful. Still, they put everything together and give a very high price airline, Delta, the top spot without reminding people they are likely to be the most expensive option as well.
Over the last year, there has understandably been a major focus on biological safety when traveling. JetBlue was the first airline, early in the pandemic, to mandate that customers wear masks onboard and quickly this was adopted by the industry without the federal mandate that followed later. New rankings have popped up with more emphasis on onboard safety and cancellation flexibility during the pandemic, and this makes sense especially when some people are still deciding if it is safe to fly again. This fits fine into the value framework, as the “got” may now include things that weren’t important to us before the pandemic. As times change, how we value what we get for anything we may buy may change, but the fundamental “got/paid” relationship holds.
Prospective flyers would be best served with a true value ranking of airlines. This would not be easy to do and of course would be somewhat subjective. Yes, an airline with more legroom is better than an airline with tight seating, but without considering the price it’s not clear if the nicer seating is worth it. If the price of the roomy airline is only a tiny bit more, it is probably higher value too. But if it is a lot more, how much “better” does a few inches of leg room make that choice? In other words, how much more would you pay to get that feature?
Based this way, it’s possible that Delta would still come out on top if people felt that what they get more than justifies their incremental expense. But it’s more likely that an airline that better balances price and features, like JetBlue or Southwest CSWC , would score higher on the value ranking (I am a member of the JetBlue Board of Directors, by the way). There is value at every point on the pricing spectrum!
I am the former CEO of Spirit Airlines, where my strong team transformed the company into the highest margin airline in North America and created a new model for air
I am the former CEO of Spirit Airlines, where my strong team transformed the company into the highest margin airline in North America and created a new model for air travel in the US. I now serve on several public and private company boards, am an Adjunct Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and co-host the popular weekly podcast Airlines Confidential.