Delta stars for its overall Covid-19 response, JetBlue is top for onboard experience, Southwest for ticketing and Alaska for loyalty as US airlines are ranked for their coronavirus actions

A study into how the ten largest airlines in the United States of America have reacted to traveller needs during the coronavirus pandemic has ranked Delta Air Lines as the best performing. In a modification to its more traditional annual US airline ranking using standard performance metrics travel-experts The Points Guy has this year instead looked at airline responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

“In a normal year, travellers might judge airlines based on their in-flight service offerings or on-time performance. 2020 is not a normal year,” it explains, with the travel industry “thrown into turmoil by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic” and no segment being impacted as significantly as airlines.

All of the world’s airlines are making changes to adopt to the current conditions that we see to stop the spread of Covid-19. “Air travel dramatically changed overnight,” explains Scott Mayerowitz, executive editorial director for The Points Guy, but he notes that while some of these changes are “meaningful” others appear to be “nothing more than public relations optics”.

The ‘Best US Airlines of 2020‘ ranking sees the lifestyle media brand and travel experience advisers position the airlines based on which are taking the most-aggressive policies to protect flyers and frequent flyer programmes and which airlines have the most-generous cancellation and refund policies.

The five objective categories to determine the final rankings (each equally worth 20% of the final ranking), included ticketing (how airlines handled changes, cancellations and refunds), cleaning (what steps airlines take to ensure cleanliness), on the ground (how airlines adjusted their ground experience like boarding and check-in procedures), onboard (how they changed their in-flight experience including capacity controls) and loyalty (extended benefits and changes to loyalty programmes).

Delta Air Lines heads the list with a total score of 86.9 out of 100, ahead of Alaska Airlines in second place with a score of 82.6. JetBlue Airways was just behind in the last podium position with a score of 82.4, while American Airlines with a score of 79.5 and Southwest Airlines with a score of 79.0 make up the top five.

Delta’s top spot was secured thanks to its strong performance across most of the categories heading the best airlines on the ground and cleaning procedures listings, scoring full marks in the latter section. Different carriers are using various types of cleaning and a variety of frequencies, but Delta was recognised for its “impressive” list of measures that have been introduced. Other airlines are taking similar steps to ensure clean, disinfected cabins, however, “the frequency and potency of these methods aren’t as clear”.

“It’s hard to compete with Delta,” acknowledged The Points Guy, which has introduced measures including electrostatic spraying with disinfectant before every flight, along with dedicated attention to high-touch areas like overhead bin handles and armrests. “Delta has even committed to holding flights if the cabin is deemed not clean enough prior to boarding,” according to the rankings.

That electrostatic spraying extends to Delta’s gate areas and jet bridges as well, helping create a sanitized space throughout a large portion of the pre- and post-flight process and that, alongside implementing a back-to-front boarding procedure with no more than 10 customers at a time, helped deliver the top score in the best airlines on the ground category.

Delta performed strongly in the onboard category thanks to its ongoing restrictions on passenger capacity (50% in first class, 60% in economy), but it was pipped to first place by JetBlue which is also continuing to restrict capacity through to at least early Sep-2020. In JetBlue’s case that is the blocking of middle seats on its Airbus fleet and aisle seats on its Embraer jets. Both were recognised for their efforts to limit passenger and flight attendant interactions.

JetBlue performed strongly in the loyalty category, but was ranked behind American Airlines and top ranking Alaska Airlines. Whether it’s extending the validity of elite status, adjusting qualification criteria or launching new offers to drive business, most carriers are taking notable steps related to their respective frequent flyer programmes.

Alaska Airlines was recognised for the numerous promotions it has introduced to further nurture the loyalty of its programme members. Alongside launching (and then extending) a 50% bonus on elite-qualifying miles for flights and the ability to earn EQMs through credit card spending, it also extended status for those participating in the carrier’s status challenge programme.

With numerous route closures, flight cancellations and passengers fearful of travelling ticketing has been a key area for airlines to manage. This has become a minefield of terms and conditions over recent years as airlines have introduced new fare classes and varied restrictions to meet changing passenger demographics.

Southwest Airlines was always going to perform well here thanks to its flexible travel policies which means no change or cancellation fees on any ticket, but it was also credited for its creativity and allowing passengers to convert existing (or new) travel funds into Rapid Rewards points. The ranking also highlights that the carrier was least likely to be the subject of complaints among the ten airlines with  just 107 per 100,000 passengers.

That level of complaints, according to DOT, is in vast contrast to Frontier Airlines which comprised 2,129 per 100,000 passengers and also echoes the big difference from the top to the bottom of this ranking which sees the US LCCs securing total scores around half those recorded by Delta at the top of the ranking, but that’s another story.

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