fb-pixel Skip to main content

Southwest is rated best domestic airline, Spirit remains the worst

A new study finds that short-staffed airlines struggled with on-time arrivals and luggage handling in 2021.

Southwest was rated best domestic airline.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Passengers may have been anxious to get back to traveling in 2021, but a report released recently found that airlines were not ready to handle their pent-up travel demand.

As the total number of domestic passengers rose from 295 million in 2020 to 540 million in 2021, airlines struggled with on-time arrivals, mishandled luggage, and more passengers being bumped from flights, according to the annual Airline Quality Rating from Wichita State University.

The report, which aggregates information from the Department of Transportation based on customer complaints and flight statistics, ranked Southwest Airlines as the nation’s top airline. Spirit Airlines was ranked the worst. The study analyzes information from the country’s 10 largest airlines.


“Within the industry, there is a lot of talk about the airlines being back from the pandemic, but performance was worse in three of the four major indicators,” said Dean Headley, emeritus associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, in a release accompanying the study. “We have the history to show that as passenger volume rises, so do performance problems. It could take another two or three years for airlines to address these issues.”

Delta Air Lines had the lowest consumer complaint rate (1.29 per 100,000 passengers), while Spirit had the highest (11.45 per 100,000 passengers). Hawaiian Airlines ranked highest in on-time arrivals, with 90 percent landing on time. Allegiant had the worst on-time arrivals record, with only 68.3 percent remaining on schedule. American Airlines had the worst score on luggage handling, while Allegiant Airlines ranked highest.

JetBlue, which is the largest airline at Logan, continued to drop in the rankings. As recently as 2018, JetBlue was ranked the second best airline in the country. It dropped to number six in 2019 and 2020. In 2021 it landed at number eight on the list.


According to Headley, problems across the industry arose because of staffing shortages and plane inventory. Many of the pilots, baggage handlers, and gate agents who were laid off chose not to return. Meanwhile, it took several months to get grounded planes out of storage and back in the air.

Below is the 2021 ranking of the nation’s 10 largest airlines, according to the Airline Quality Rating, with the 2020 ranking in parentheses:

1. Southwest (1)

2. Hawaiian (9)

3. Delta (3)

4. Allegiant (2)

5. Alaska (4)

6. United (8)

7. Frontier (10)

8. JetBlue (6)

9. American (7)

10. Spirit (5)

Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.