About airline polls…

One thing that US News & World Reports is good at is building polls. For example, every year, the “Best Colleges” poll causes angst among the 16-year olds as they struggle over whether they should apply to #1 Penn or #235 Columbia University, or perhaps some school in between. And just what will their friends think of them if they go to a program that has a faculty-to-student ratio of 10.8 instead of 10.1. Yes, USN & WR is very good at building polls.

Whether the polls are any good is a different question entirely, as evidenced by its recent Best Airline Rewards Programs piece. In fact, given the amount of press that this poll has gotten, it shows that what they’re really good at is generating clicks and readers (I’m still hoping they send me the manual.), since the rankings themselves make little actual sense.

Here’s all that you need to know: The program that is best for you is the program that is best for you. Huh? In other words, if you live in Atlanta and like to travel internationally, there’s simply no way that Frontier is a better program for you than Delta. In fact, there’s no way that Frontier is a better program than Delta (or United, for that matter) in about 99% of cases, with the exception being that you live in Denver, take short flights and don’t care about anything other than price. And in that case, United still might be better for you.

Part of the problem is that the article tries to compare apples and oranges. You can’t compare a network carrier, for instance, with a regional low-cost carrier and expect to have fair results. And the irony is, had they broken up the airlines into categories, I think they pretty much got it right. Assuming that you are “geographically-neutral,” here’s how I would rank the airlines. Remember, my priorities may be different than yours when it comes to miles:

Network Carriers:

Their order: Alaska, American, United, Delta

My order: American, Alaska, United, Delta

No quibbles here, although you could easily swap the last two or the first two. I’ve always been a big fan of Alaska, a Seattle-based carrier that has, on more than one occasion, been described as “the prostitute of the airline industry,” since they partner with anyone for the right price. Although they don’t fly a huge network on Alaska metal, they control the Pacific Northwest, a very valuable piece of real estate, so they are able to drive strong partnership deals. They are the only US carrier that has significant domestic relationships with two different alliances (American in oneworld and Delta in SkyTeam), as well as a host of strong international partners. It also expanded its partnership with American, now allowing members to earn miles on US Airways and giving Alaska lounge members access to American lounges. The only thing holding them back is that although you can earn Alaska miles on partners, it won’t get you maximum elite benefits on those partners.

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With a strong elite program and a program still based on miles flown, American comes in second, followed by United and Delta, who converted to programs based on spend, not how far you’ve flown, which hurts those of us who don’t shell out thousands for a ticket.

Niche Carriers: 

Their order: Southwest, JetBlue, Hawaiian, Virgin America

My order: Hawaiian, JetBlue/Southwest (pick ’em), Virgin America (but it depends)

If you fly JetBlue or Southwest primarily, they are your best choice, hands down. None of these airlines has a worldwide network on their own, so if you are in this category, you are likely flying domestically. Southwest also offers the Companion Pass for top-tier elites, which I have dubbed the greatest airline perk ever.

Virgin America is a great choice if you are on the west coast and has an excellent product. I’d love to see them on the east coast.

If you want to fly on an airline other than your host, however, Hawaiian’s partnership with American gives it an advantage over the others. It also gives miles based on the distance flown, as opposed to the other three, which base it on dollars spent.

Plus, you might have to connect through Honolulu.

Plus, you might have to connect through Honolulu.

Ultra low-cost carriers:

Their order: Frontier, Spirit

My order: Meh

Both programs stink. Neither airline actually wanted to do a frequent flyer program*, but travelers were so accustomed to them that the airlines were forced to do so. Spirit has better geographical diversity than Frontier, but the latter has slightly better “benefits.” But neither offers great value. A free flight doesn’t get you very far on either airline, since so much of their revenue comes from non-ticket charges. Join if you are ever going to fly them, but don’t plan on using them for that first-class trip to Paris.

 *To be entirely fair, JetBlue didn’t want to have a program when they first launched, either. They also considered offering free fine dining instead of TVs. In my opinion, they made the right decision on both.

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