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At first, airlines scrambled to adjust to disappearing revenue early in the pandemic. Then, airlines scrambled to implement health policies, like blocked middle seats, to entice passengers back to the skies.
Now, we're in a new stage of air travel during the pandemic. With vaccines widely available, airports and flights are about as full as they were in 2019. Airlines are scrambling to meet this recovering demand, and many are phasing out flexible booking policies.
To determine which airlines are best to fly now, we performed a comparative analysis of airline on-time performance, vaccination policies and flexible ticketing policies. We boiled down these variables into a single 5-point rating system to determine the best airlines for flying during COVID.
It wasn’t even close. Delta led the pack in two of the three categories we considered and finished near the top in the third category.
Put simply: Delta is the best U.S. airline to fly during the pandemic. Alaska, United and JetBlue all performed above average, and Spirit Airlines performed worst of all.
How did we arrive at these ratings? Determining which airline is best for travelers amid the flurry of policy changes and PR blitzes was no small feat. To keep it relatively simple, we looked at three aspects:
Operational reliability: How well airlines have done operating domestic and international flights on time during the pandemic.
Health policies implemented: What health policies airlines have put in place, such as requiring vaccines and enforcing masking.
Travel booking flexibility: How generous (and consistent) airlines have been in offering free changes and cancellations to new and existing bookings.
We rated each airline in each category, then averaged the ratings across all categories.
Read more about our methodology below.
The most important aspect for many travelers is getting where you want to go on time. However, it's been an especially tough year for airlines between staffing shortages and grounded aircrafts — which were both exacerbated by pandemic cutbacks. Among the mess, Delta navigated these challenges the best. The airline operated the most domestic and international flights on time and canceled the fewest flights compared with other U.S.-based airlines.
In fact, aviation data provider Cirium crowned Delta the "world's best performing airline" in its 2021 On Time Performance Review. Beyond the numbers, Cirium considered Delta's "operational complexity and its ability to limit the impact of flight disruptions to its passengers."
Based on Cirium's data from June to December 2021, the major U.S. airlines with the best on-time performance were:
Airline (including regional affiliates)
Delta Air Lines
Two airlines had high-profile operational meltdowns recently. Hopefully, these were isolated events. But travelers may want to factor in these incidents when considering which airline to fly.
In mid-October 2021, Southwest faced an operational meltdown — with over 2,000 flight cancellations across a three-day period. Southwest initially blamed air traffic control and weather for the cancellations, but other airlines operated as normal. The airline eventually conceded that the operational recovery was "more difficult and prolonged" due to schedule and staffing reductions made during the pandemic.
In late October 2021, American blamed high winds in Dallas for an operational meltdown that led to the cancellation of over 2,200 flights. Although winds were indeed high, other airlines — such as Dallas-based airline Southwest — weren't nearly as impacted. American eventually acknowledged that it had insufficient staffing reserves to help get back on track.
Ongoing health policies
At the beginning of the pandemic, airlines scrambled to implement cleaning procedures and partner with cleaning product brands. Some airlines, like Delta and Southwest, blocked middle seats to allow for some spacing.
Now that airlines have dropped cleaning protocols and are selling all seats, they have just two ways to differentiate themselves: vaccine mandates and ongoing banning of potentially unsafe passengers.
Vaccines reduce the chances of getting sick with COVID-19 and its severity in the case of a breakthrough infection. Regardless of your vaccination status, you might want to fly on an airline with vaccinated employees. After all, higher vaccination rates among the airline staff should reduce the likelihood of a labor shortage — and resulting flight cancellations — during a surge.
United led the way in requiring vaccinations for employees. In August 2021, the airline announced that all employees needed to be fully vaccinated or request a religious or health exception. After a judge reviewed and upheld United's policy, only about 200 of the airline's 67,000 employees were let go, and employees with exceptions were placed on leave. Now, whenever you step on a United plane, you can be sure that the employees are fully vaccinated.
Instead of mandating vaccines, Delta is charging unvaccinated employees an additional $200 per month for insurance. The Delta CEO shared in recent testimony that over 90% of employees were vaccinated. Delta is also taking a strict approach to people who refuse to comply with the federal law mandating masks on planes. Through September 2021, Delta has banned over 1,600 flyers for refusing to follow airline rules. And Delta is pushing other airlines to share their internal "no fly" lists to make sure that unruly passengers can't just take their business to another airline.
American confirmed to NerdWallet that it's asking employees to submit proof of vaccination or request an accommodation by early January 2022. An airline spokesperson noted that the "vast majority" of American's employees are vaccinated — although the airline wouldn't give a specific number. American has announced plans to fire any employees who don't provide proof of vaccination or request an exemption.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly stated that the airline would comply with federal requirements about vaccine and mask mandates but “we’re not going to fire any of our employees over this.”
Flexible booking policies
As the world’s travel plans went topsy-turvy, airlines began offering flexible booking policies for both existing and new tickets. Then, in fall 2020, airlines seemed to grow tired of extending these policies, and most eliminated change fees entirely.
The sudden omicron variant surge showed just how much uncertainty there still is in travel — and is yet another reminder that flexible booking policies are critical.
Now, there are three criteria that set major U.S. airlines apart:
Change flexibility: Most airlines have dropped change fees for all fares except for basic economy. However, these policies vary between airlines.
Refunds on changes: What happens if you have to rebook on a cheaper flight? We considered each airline's policy.
Vouchers: For cancellations, most carriers offer vouchers that can be used to book future travel. We looked at how easy airlines have made using these vouchers.
Given the above criteria, we have to give the edge to Delta.
Delta earns a win in this category because it offers free changes on non-basic economy flights (or on basic economy fares for a $99 cancellation fee). The airline also offers easy online flight changes/cancellations and is extending travel credits through at least Dec. 31, 2022.
Southwest has always offered remarkably flexible change and cancellation policies, so it was well-situated to adapt to the upheaval caused by the pandemic. While most major U.S. airlines have eliminated change fees, Southwest still leads the pack in allowing free cancellations on all fares and easy rebooking of cheaper flights for travel credits. Note that you can't use Southwest travel funds for other passengers.
American, United and Alaska have all converged on similar change fee policies. As of Jan. 1, 2022, all basic economy fares are "use it or lose it." Non-basic economy fares can be changed for free for flights within or departing the U.S., and these airlines will give you travel credit if you rebook a cheaper fare.
The bottom line
Making sense of the ever-changing airline landscape amid the COVID-19 pandemic is a full-time, full-team job — namely, ours. We’ve been keeping a close eye on the pros and cons of each airline policy shift in order to produce these up-to-date rankings.
Although we strove to perform as objective an analysis as possible, these (and any) rankings have an element of subjectivity. Due to your own travel preferences, you might care about vaccine mandates but not travel voucher policies, for example.
These ratings offer an across-the-board look at how airlines have responded to the COVID-19 crisis, not a recommendation for which airline best suits your own preferences moving forward.
We compared seven U.S. airlines across 11 factors in three categories (operations, health and flexible bookings). We attributed a score to each airline in every factor, with a total of up to 5 points for each category. We then averaged these scores to determine an overall rating.
Not all factors received equal weight. For example, the “vaccine mandate” factor was scored from 0 to 4, while the “banning passengers” factor was scored from 0 to 1.
Basically, we rated each airline across many factors and weighted these factors based on how important we considered them. If you care about some factors more than others, you can determine the most suitable airline for you using the complete data below.
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