2020 was a turbulent year for air travel—and some airlines rose to the occasion more than others, according to the Wall Street Journal's annual scorecard.

By Maggie Seaver
February 01, 2021

How do you decide which airline to book for a trip? The cheaper the better? One with enough legroom and excellent cancelation policies? The airline you can always trust not to ship your bags to Spain while you're headed to San Francisco—even though it's prone to delays? Booking a flight for work, leisure, or life events typically comes down to two factors: price and comfort. Ideally, the best airlines in the U.S. would offer both (among other top-notch amenities), but getting a great price on a flight often requires some give and take (aka you end up with fewer perks and less legroom).

Last year, however, the pandemic completely upended travel norms, including traveler priorities and how (now-apprehensive) fliers decided which airline to choose. Though far fewer people flew commercial, customers still had a lot of opinions. And though airlines faced halted air routes and unprecedented business setbacks in the last year, they still had a lot to reckon with in order to keep customers satisfied. The Wall Street Journal wasted no time unveiling its annual, retroactive ranking of the best and worst airlines in the U.S. by operational performance, with a lot more data to consider under the circumstances. 

How airlines dealt with COVID-19-related hurdles—canceled flights, vouchers, refunds, passenger hygiene, disgruntled customers—heavily influenced their position in the Wall Street Journal's 2020 Middle Seat Scorecard. Unsurprisingly, the carriers who handled pandemic-adjacent challenges most impressively were those that have tended to score higher in the lineup in previous years (and vice versa for typically low-scoring airlines).

The Best and Worst Airlines in U.S. : bar graph with airplanes
Credit: Getty Images

According to the report, Southwest Airlines snagged first place overall for the first time in over 10 years, knocking Delta Air Lines down a peg after its three consecutive years in the lead. WSJ cites Southwest's two recent improvements to baggage handling and operations for helping it rise to number one, with the airline's CEO, Mike Van de Ven, claiming "it was the best baggage performance in our recorded history." Southwest proved best-in-class in other subcategories, with the fewest reported extreme delays and fewest customer complaints. That said, Southwest was far from perfect. Other carriers scored higher in areas like flight cancelations (Spirit leads), on-time arrivals, and involuntary passenger bumping (Delta scored number one in both). Once again, American Airlines takes last place overall, holding the bottom spot in major areas, including number of passenger complaints, bumping, and mishandled baggage. Something to consider next time you're booking flights (with caution, of course!).

Below, from best to worst, is the WSJ 2020 Airlines Scorecard, the overall ranking of major carriers in the U.S. Read the full article for more airline analysis and methodology. 

  1. Southwest Airlines
  2. Delta Air Lines
  3. Alaska Airlines
  4. Spirit Airlines
  5. Allegiant Air
  6. Frontier Airlines
  7. JetBlue
  8. United Airlines
  9. American Airlines

Something to note is that there isn't yet an accurate or comprehensive way to track certain data points that have recently emerged as crucial priorities to both travelers and airlines since the coronavirus disease outbreak. These include factors like air circulation/ventilation, mask enforcement, middle seat blocking, and cabin sanitization. Since there's no one-stop shop to quantify and analyze different carrier's rankings in the health and safety department (yet), it's still very much up to travelers to be as safe, vigilant, and responsible as possible when flying right now.