(MONEY Magazine) – Sardine-can seating. Service with a scowl. Price hikes five times a year. If you usually fly coach or economy class when you step onto a jet--as most leisure travelers do--it must seem that the major U.S. airlines have been hijacked in recent years by renegade service reps from Aeroflot. The latest ignominy came in early September, when nine of the 10 largest carriers hiked domestic fares 5%.

In Air Force One, Harrison Ford shows one method of dealing with an aircrew who ignore passenger satisfaction. But we have a more practical way to get what you want in air travel: MONEY's first rating of major U.S. carriers. Unlike all other airline comparisons, our list ranks the carriers according to how well they perform in the areas that you deem most important. To do this, we polled 1,017 fliers to see which factors matter most to them in an airline, including flight safety, ticket price and comfort. We then scored the 10 biggest U.S. airlines' performance in each of those areas and compiled an overall rating weighted to reflect our survey respondents' priorities. (For a full explanation of our methodology, see the box on page 128.)

The overall winner by a considerable margin: Southwest Airlines (see the table at the top of page 121). Southwest is tops in safety, passengers' No. 1 concern; its flights are most likely to arrive on time; and it is least likely to mishandle your bags or make you angry enough to complain about customer service or ticketing. TWA finished last overall, in part because it trailed other major airlines in on-time performance, customer service, ease of making reservations and receiving tickets, and quality of frequent-flier programs.

Based in Dallas, $3.4 billion Southwest started in 1971 with just three planes serving Texas cities. Now it is the eighth largest carrier in the country, famous for its frequent departures and low-cost, short-haul and no-frills flights. The airline sticks to a 254-plane fleet consisting entirely of Boeing 737s, which, while relatively uncomfortable for passengers, are thoroughly familiar to its mechanics. Result: fewer maintenance delays and possibly safer travel. (In its 26-year history, Southwest has never suffered a fatal accident.) "Southwest's planes are pretty much interchangeable to the workers who service and handle cargo for them," says Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating report (free; 316-978-3367). "And Southwest has done a fine job training its front-line personnel to be enthusiastic about treating customers right." For all these reasons, Southwest ranks at the top of our list even though it currently serves only 51 cities in 24 states. (Good news if you don't live in the sunbelt: Last year, Southwest started flying in the Northeast, with service to Providence.)

Last-place finisher TWA, on the other hand, has been rocked recently by a series of financial problems that have diminished its quality of service. The St. Louis-based carrier that employed Charles Lindbergh as a scout for its mail routes in the '20s and initiated coast-to-coast service in the '30s has battled a nasty strike and gone bankrupt twice in the '80s and '90s. And experts say that despite the fact that workers own 30% of the company, TWA has been slow to realize that consumers' attitudes toward airlines depend largely on how employees treat passengers. "Untrue," responds TWA spokesman Donn Walker, "especially since we have stepped up our customer service efforts in recent years."

Of course, you can't always fly Southwest (or avoid TWA). So here are some tips on how to get the most in the areas that our poll shows are important to you.


Our poll found that safety is your No. 1 concern: 94% of respondents said that it is a "critical" or "very important" element in choosing an airline. Safety fears doubtless stem in part from memories of the horrific 1996 crashes of a ValuJet plane in the Florida Everglades and a TWA airliner off the coast of New York's Long Island. Unfortunately, you can't do much to ensure the safety of your flight. For one thing, accidents occur so infrequently on major airlines that experts caution against using past records to predict future performance. (Over the time period we studied, January 1995 through June 1997, Southwest had the lowest rate of mishaps and Delta the highest.)

The good news is that U.S. airlines have an enviable overall safety record. Large carriers made more than 23,000 flights a day last year, while suffering only 38 accidents. True, 380 passengers died in those accidents, the most since 1985, mostly because of the ValuJet and TWA disasters. But over time, safety trends have been positive. While departures increased 19% in the U.S. over the past decade, the rate of accidents (which injure people or cause major damage to aircraft) plus "incidents" (which involve lesser mechanical problems) declined by more than 50%, from 9.21 per 100,000 flights in 1985 to 4.58 in 1995 (the last year for which complete data are available), thanks in part to increasing vigilance by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). And remember that flying is still the safest way to travel in the U.S.: To be likely to be involved in a fatal accident, you would have to fly one commercial jet every day for 21,000 years, according to a recent study conducted by MIT statistician Arnold Barnett. The probability of dying in a car accident is 21 times greater.

One safety resource that you do have at your disposal is the FAA's Website ( With a few clicks of your mouse, you can obtain information on accidents, incidents, near-mid-air collisions and penalties levied by federal authorities for all domestic airlines. Just make sure you adjust any data you download by the number of departures, miles flown or passengers carried before you compare them.


Price ranked second in importance to safety in our poll; 74% of coach travelers said cost is a critical or very important concern. But as Tom Parsons, editor of the monthly magazine Best Fares ($59.95 per year; 800-880-1234), says: "You can control how much you pay for a flight much more than its safety, so in practice, prices will more often drive your choices."

Prices can also drive you crazy. Average full-price fares skyrocketed 13% last year and are up 43% over the past five years, according to Airline Monitor, a monthly trade magazine based in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Even more important to coach travelers, "leisure" rates (economy-class fares booked at least one week in advance for trips with Saturday-night stayovers) have been raised by the major carriers 36 times since 1992, according to Parsons. For example, reserve a round-trip flight between Boston and San Francisco 21 days before you travel, and you'll typically pay $592 today, up a whopping 52% from $390 five years ago.

Officials at the major airlines--which earned $2.8 billion in profits in 1996 on $75.9 billion in sales to passengers--maintain that their prices are set by supply and demand. In 1992, however, the Justice Department charged that eight of the major airlines (excluding America West and Southwest) had worked together to rig their rates, costing customers as much as $1.9 billion between 1988 and 1992. Without admitting or denying guilt, the airlines settled the case in 1994 by agreeing not to negotiate prices with one another. They also paid $364 million in discount coupons to 4.3 million passengers.

Airlines still commonly increase their fares in lockstep. On Sept. 4, for example, Northwest ratcheted its fares up 5%, and most other major airlines promptly followed suit. But because of a computer error, it appeared that United was holding the line on its fares. So American, Delta and TWA proceeded to roll back their increases. On Sept. 7, United fixed the problem and upped its prices; the following day, the other three matched the hike exactly. "Generally, we shift prices to meet changes in competitive conditions," says Bill Dreslin, a spokesman for American Airlines. The Justice Department would not comment on the recent increases.

To get the lowest possible price on a plane ticket, you need to understand how airline economics work. If a major airline has the route from one city to another more or less to itself, you can expect it to charge exorbitant prices. But if a low-cost carrier like Carnival, Frontier or Southwest has invaded its turf, you should be able to find cheaper fares at the times the upstarts fly. For instance, travelers going nonstop from Philadelphia to Hartford have no choice but to take US Airways, which owns the market for that route (average cost: $285 a flight, or $1.46 per mile). On the other hand, you can fly about the same distance from Orlando to Fort Lauderdale for just 32[cents] a mile--78% less--on Southwest, which shares the skies between those cities with Continental and Delta.

To hold costs down, consider nearby alternatives to any destination. For example, flying from Dallas to La Guardia Airport in New York City will cost you about $428 if you buy tickets 21 days in advance. But if you land in nearby Newark instead, you can usually save $218 per ticket. You can find a list of cities served by niche and regional airlines in Parsons' book Insider Travel Secrets (Best Fares USA, $19.95).

Using your computer can save you big bucks too. Several Internet sites scan airline databases for cheap prices that are often posted for only a few days or hours as carriers make last-minute attempts to fill seats. One must-check home page is Best Fares magazine (, which runs constant updates of such "you snooze, you lose" deals. Other sites allow you to enter your origin and destination, then show you the best deal available on any airline. The best: Microsoft Expedia ( and The Trip ( Many airlines will also give you Internet updates on their cheapest deals. Every Wednesday, for example, US Airways (888-359-3728; e-mails a list of "E-Savers," inexpensive flights available for the upcoming weekend, to anyone who asks for it once.


Baggage handling and on-time performance crossed the finish line just behind price in our poll. Seven out of 10 coach fliers say these categories are critical or very important to their plans. Distressing news for that large majority: On-time performance was down in 1996, with only 74.5% of major airline flights arriving on time vs. 78.6% in 1995. And 5.3 of every 1,000 passengers on the largest carriers--about one in 200--reported that their baggage was mishandled last year, up from 5.18 the year before. (Southwest rated most reliable in both categories in both years.) One reason: Workers at the big 10 airlines are getting overloaded. The major airlines conveyed 81.6 passengers for each of the 5,688,325 flights they made in 1996, up 5.4% from 77.4 passengers per departure in '95, according to Department of Transportation data.

To minimize problems, check as few bags as possible or tote only a carry-on--especially if your flight makes a connection. Ask to connect through cities that are not prone to high-volume or bad-weather delays (go via Dallas instead of Chicago, for example). Finally, take off and land as early in the morning as possible, because on-time performance erodes throughout the day. For instance, 93.2% of flights taking off between 6 a.m. and 6:59 a.m. departed on time last year, compared with 81.1% between noon and 1 p.m. and 71.8% of planes between 8 p.m. and 8:59 p.m. For a full rundown of airports and flights that are most likely to cause you problems, write for a free copy of the latest Air Travel Consumer Report, which is published monthly by the Department of Transportation (DOT, Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75, 400 Seventh St. S.W., Washington, D.C. 20590).


If you don't need a vacation before you board today's airliners, you may well by the time you land. In their never-ending quest for more dollars per flight, carriers are cramming more bodies onto their jets. Many airlines have reconfigured their aircraft to provide more room for business-class seats, which means fewer inches for coach fannies. One result: The major airlines averaged a dismal score of 69.7 out of 100 on our comfort rating scale. "For coach-class travelers, quality of service is as bad as we've ever seen it," says Ed Perkins, editor of the 14-year-old monthly Consumer Reports Travel Letter ($39 for one year; 800-234-1970). That's the case even though 57% of frequent coach fliers polled say that comfort is critical or very important to them.

Major airlines are spending less on food too--an average of $3.02 per passenger last year, down 25% from $4.02 in 1989, according to data from Back Information Services, an aviation consulting firm based in Stamford, Conn. (For information on one stellar exception, see the box on page 123.)

To make the best of a generally bad situation, check out what type of aircraft you will be flying. Boeing 767s are the most comfortable, with relatively wide 20-inch seats and only one middle seat in each row. 777s and McDonnell Douglas DC-10s will also provide you with 20-inch seats and good odds of not getting squeezed between other passengers. The planes to avoid are 727s, 737s and 757s, because all of them have three 19-inch seats on both sides of their aisles. Overall, your best chance for a comfortable ride now is with TWA, but that may not last. Reason: The airline is eliminating the last of its "Comfort Class" seats, which gave some coach passengers up to four inches of extra legroom, in order to jam more first-class seats onto its jets.


Only 34% of our poll respondents said that frequent-flier programs were critical or very important to their plans, while 40% said they are "nice to have" or not important. Perhaps that's because passengers don't participate fully enough in the programs: More than 30 million Americans belong to frequent-flier programs, but only 15% of miles are ever redeemed for awards, according to Best Fares. The more often you fly, of course, the more important such programs become.

American (800-882-8880) established the first frequent-flier program in 1981, and by our reckoning it is still No. 1. The number of miles you must accumulate to earn a free domestic ticket--25,000--isn't the lowest around (Alaska Air, America West and TWA require just 20,000 miles). But its program has 54 partners, the most among the major carriers, and that gives you a wide variety of ways to earn miles. For example, order flowers through FTD Direct, and American will credit you with 300 frequent-flier miles plus 100 more for every $10 you spend over $29.95. And 9% of its seats are occupied by frequent fliers, compared with an average of 6% for other carriers, so you're more likely to get on the flight you want when you cash in your miles at American than elsewhere.

To maximize frequent-flier benefits, sign up for as many programs as you can, because airlines have begun offering special deals to members regardless of their mileage totals. For example, Delta recently issued coupons that allowed its frequent fliers to travel anywhere within their region of the U.S. (East, Southeast, Midwest or West) for $79, whether they had accumulated 100 or 1 million frequent-flier miles. "Good deals are out there," says Parsons. "Your job is to do your homework so you can find them."