The Best and Worst Airlines of 2022 for Customer Service

Christopher Elliot


What are the best airlines of the year for customer service? Ask passengers, and they'll mention favorites like JetBlue and Southwest (despite that airline's holiday meltdown). And they'll criticize legacy carriers like American and United, and low-fare airlines that love to charge fees.


Travelers have been doing a lot of talking lately. They complained about airline service in record numbers this year. This summer, consumer complaints against airlines were nearly 270 percent above pre-pandemic levels. We'll have to wait until early 2023 for this year's total, but it's not looking good.


So which airlines performed the best for their customers? Which ones didn't? And what, if anything, is the government doing about the state of airline customer service?



These are the best airlines for customer service

Customers say they like perennial favorites, including JetBlue, Southwest, Delta and Alaska. And in 2022, these carriers came through for passengers again -- to a point.


Alex Beene, a community coordinator in Nashville, flew to Dallas on Southwest Airlines recently. Weather and staffing issues led to delay after delay. He was afraid he would miss his appointment in Dallas and approached a gate agent about his concerns.


"From that point forward, they did everything possible to expedite my journey," he says. "They gave me early boarding so I could get a seat in the front of the plane. A flight attendant drew a makeshift map showing me how to get to ground transportation quickly. To my shock, Southwest even gave me a $200 voucher for a future flight."


Beene says he's a customer for life.


Inez Stanway says her vote for the best airline goes to Delta. A recent trip from Atlanta to Detroit is a standout. 


"The flight was smooth and on time," says Stanway, who runs an art website in Atlanta. "The staff was attentive and polite, and I had no problems at all. It was a very pleasant experience."


Research backs up these experiences. Fordham University's American Innovation Index ranked JetBlue as the top airline, followed by Southwest, Alaska and Delta. Lerzan Aksoy, the interim dean of Fordham's business school, says these airlines go "above and beyond" when it comes to customer service.


"Customers appreciate when airlines go above and beyond to help customers through superior service and flexibility," she added.



My favorite airlines of 2022

I haven't flown in the United States this year, but I've had plenty of opportunities to try foreign airlines.


Qatar Airways is one of my favorite flying experiences of the year. I flew the Gulf carrier from Frankfurt to Doha and from Doha to Cape Town in economy class. Qatar's cabin service was excellent and it gave me plenty of legroom on both flights. Also, it didn't charge extra for my luggage -- just like in the good old days.


Turkish Airlines also gets high marks. I flew the national carrier from Cape Town to Istanbul in business class and then around Turkey in economy class. I particularly liked the in-flight food, from incredible Turkish coffee to fresh-baked simit (bagels). Turkish hospitality is legendary.


SAS shuttled me from London to Oslo and from Bergen to Split, Croatia this fall. Even though the airline was struggling financially, that didn't stop it from providing first-rate service. When people complain about the demise of European carriers, they are clearly not talking about SAS.



These are the worst airlines for customer service

The worst airlines are also familiar. Passengers mention negative experiences with some legacy carriers and low-fare airlines known for their fees.


Dennis Shirshikov recalls a recent American Airlines flight from Mexico City to New York with his wife and three young children. As they boarded, a crew member ordered him to gate-check their stroller. Shirshikov, who runs a real estate investment firm in New York, says he balked because the stroller was regulation-size and he needed it to transport his kids. "They were very confrontational," he says. 


When he arrived at JFK, the stroller was gone. He finally found it in the lost and found. It was bent and scuffed but still worked. His relationship with American Airlines was damaged beyond repair. He says he'll avoid American from now on.


But even airlines like United weren't as bad as they have been in the past, at least when it comes to customer service. The American Innovation index found United was the most improved airline over the last five years, with its scores rising by 15 points on a 100-point scale. Customers like United because it is easy to work with and has a good loyalty program. 


It's not perfect. "United has significant delays in processing refunds and cancellations," says Molly Egan, a hospitality designer construction manager from Denver.


Department of Transportation (DOT) complaint data backs up this list of the least favorite carriers. In the first half of 2022, American Airlines had the most complaints (3,186), followed by United Airlines (2,391), Spirit Airlines (1,909) and Frontier Airlines (1,750). 



Government: Airline service may have hit a low in 2022

Ask the U.S. government, and you might come away thinking airlines offered the worst service ever.


The Department of Transportation last month issued a record $7.25 million fine against six airlines for failing to refund tickets for flights that had canceled or significantly changed during the pandemic. The government also issue four other aviation protection orders — fines against airlines for violating department regulations or engaging in unfair and deceptive practices.


Earlier this year, airline regulators proposed a new rule that would make it easier to get a refund when a flight gets canceled or is significantly delayed. It would also allow passengers to get flight credits that don't expire when they cancel their flights for pandemic-related reasons, like a government travel ban.


The DOT set up a new customer service dashboard that publishes information about how each airline handles delays or cancellations. For example, you can find out if your airline offers hotels, meal vouchers or ground transportation to the hotel when you have to spend the night at the airport.


This year could be a time of reckoning for airlines as some of these rules are adopted by regulators. And, barring a miracle, Southwest probably won't end up on anyone's favorite list for 2023 after its holiday meltdown. (But if anyone can make it up to passengers, it's probably Southwest.)


But that's not all. Congress will consider the next FAA Reauthorization Bill, which funds the FAA. Traditionally, it's an opportunity for lawmakers to weigh in on the industry's performance with new legislation. 


Given last summer's wave of delays and cancellations and the dreadful ending of 2022, thanks to Southwest, it's unlikely the industry will continue to get away with this behavior.


Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Top Photo Illustration by Chris Elliot

--Tomas Del Coro (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--BriYYZ (Flickr, Creative Commons) (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

--Pxhere (Creative Commons)


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