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Airlines scrambled to adjust to disappearing revenue earlier this year, and they are now scrambling to implement health policies to entice passengers back as more people cautiously take to the skies. But not all this scrambling was done equally across airlines; some have acted in a much more customer-friendly way than others.
Some airlines have even begun pulling back or eliminating once-generous policies. American Airlines, for example, changed its COVID-19 policy by removing capacity limits, meaning travelers might once again find themselves on full planes. Others, like Delta Air Lines, have blocked middle seats through the rest of the year.
To determine which airlines have treated customers better than others during the COVID-19 pandemic, we performed a comparative analysis across several dimensions. On Aug. 27, 2020, we updated this analysis, swapping out the grade-based system for a five-point scale and updating the scores to reflect the most recent airline policies.
Determining which airline has offered the most customer-friendly policies amid the flurry of policy changes and PR blitzes is no small feat. We performed a comprehensive analysis across two domains:
Travel booking flexibility: How generous (and consistent) airlines have been in offering free changes and cancellations to new and existing bookings.
Health and safety: Measures taken to ensure passenger safety.
We graded each airline in each category, then averaged the grades across all categories.
Delta takes the top spot with a perfect 5 out of 5 rating thanks to a slew of industry-leading policies and procedures, including strict mask enforcement, blocked middle seats, and flexible booking, rebooking and travel voucher policies. Delta has aggressively set the standard of customer care throughout 2020.
Alaska and Southwest also score well, while American and Hawaiian take up the rear.
Note: These ratings are current as of Aug. 27, 2020, and do not reflect any changes or updates since. Make sure to check the most recent relevant policies before booking your own flights.
Health and safety policies
Jamming into a flying tube is hardly anyone’s idea of social distancing. Airlines have taken many individual measures to assuage passenger fears. On the surface, these policies can seem overwhelmingly comprehensive, including elaborate cleaning procedures, face mask requirements (which all airlines have enacted) and advanced air filtration systems.
However, based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and our discussion with an expert, the biggest danger of air travel is proximity to others. Therefore, we gave special focus (and weight) to concrete steps airlines are taking to ensure social distancing and passenger self-screening.
Strict mask enforcement: All major airlines now require masks throughout the flight, but some are taking extra measures to enforce these policies, closing loopholes and banning customers who refuse to comply.
Fully blocked seats: Policies to block middle seats on wide-body aircraft and either aisle or window seats on narrower planes. Policies that block these seats during booking but not for the flight itself do not qualify.
Capped flight capacity: Policies that limit the number of total passengers who can fly on a single aircraft. In some cases, this overlaps with the “blocked seat” policies.
Improved boarding procedures: Usually, back-to-front boarding to minimize crowding in the aisles.
Passenger self-screening: A self-screening protocol at check-in to try to limit travel by sick passengers.
Note: We have not compared the specific cleaning or air-filtration systems introduced this year. For one, these policies are largely similar to one another. For another, we are not experts in this area and are not qualified to determine which cleaning procedures are more effective than others.
Delta has put its money where its mouth is, enforcing seat-blocking and other policies that will cost it revenue in the short term but earn customer trust in the long term. American and Hawaiian each have comprehensive cleaning and social distance policies but have not taken the extra steps outlined above to stay competitive with Delta and others.
For example, notice the seemingly subtle difference between Delta’s middle seat policy:
"...All middle seats will continue to be shown as unavailable or not assignable when selecting seats via the Fly Delta app or online. Additionally, the seat next to you will automatically be blocked upon completion of your reservation, and the block will be visible within the seat map in My Trips.”
“We are currently preventing the booking of middle seats on our aircraft to continue to provide more space for guests and flight attendants.”
Notice that Hawaiian is blocking the “booking” of middle seats, but not explicitly blocking the “selection” of middle seats during check-in. This is a crucial difference because it means you may still end up seated next to a stranger on a Hawaiian flight, whereas Delta's policy ensures that you will not.
Flexible booking policies
Winners: Delta, Southwest
As the world’s travel plans went topsy-turvy, airlines began offering flexible booking policies for both existing and new tickets. We tracked these changes for the major U.S. airlines and rated them across three criteria:
Number of changes allowed: Most airlines now offer unlimited changes on new bookings, but one, American, still only allows a single change.
Flexibility: Airlines also differed in the generosity of these policies. Southwest always offers highly flexible fares, while JetBlue offered more limited date ranges for its waived change fees and expanded them later than other airlines.
Vouchers: Most carriers offer cancellations in the form of “vouchers,” which can be used to book future travel. However, given the uncertainty of travel planning, some, like Delta, extended the expiration of these vouchers.
Southwest always offers remarkably flexible change and cancellation policies and was well-situated to adapt to the upheaval caused by the pandemic. Delta edged the other top airlines in this category by extending its cancellation vouchers through September 2022.
American has offered relatively restrictive policies and is now the only major airline that does not allow unlimited change fee waivers on new bookings.
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 final rankings.
Although we strove to perform as objective an analysis as possible, these (and any) rankings have an element of subjectivity. For your own travel preferences, you might care about mask enforcement but not travel voucher policies, for example. These ratings offer an across-the-board look at how airlines have responded to the crisis, not a recommendation for which airline best suits your own preferences moving forward.
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