Which Airlines Have Handled COVID-19 the Best?

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. Yet not all this scrambling was done equally across airlines — and 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, made a change to its COVID-19 policy by removing capacity limits on all flights starting July 1, 2020 — meaning travelers might once again find themselves on full planes.

So which airlines have treated customers better than others during the COVID-19 pandemic? We wanted to find out.

Winners and losers

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 three 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.

  • “Bad looks” and “elbow bumps”: A catchall category that takes into account poor customer experience (like the American announcement above), as well as actions that stood out as positive.

We graded each airline in each category, then averaged the grades across all categories. Here are the total results, with detailed explanations and breakdowns of each category further below.

Net elbow bumps (# elbow bumps minus # bad looks)

Southwest had a huge head start thanks to its always-flexible booking policy, but it also expanded and improved the passenger experience in many extra ways, giving it the best grade in our final analysis.

American Airlines, on the other hand, brings up the rear in these ratings because of its regressive capacity policies.

Note that these rankings are as of July 3, 2020, and do not reflect any changes since then. We will aim to perform another analysis and offer new grades at the end of 2020.

Flexible booking policies

  • Number of changes allowed: Some airlines (including American and Hawaiian) limited the number of changes allowed under these policies, while most offered unlimited free changes. We gave a boost to those that allowed the latter.

  • Flexibility: Airlines also differed in the generosity of these policies. Southwest always offers highly flexible fares, while JetBlue inched the date ranges for its waived change fees much slower 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.

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 CDC recommendations 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.

  • Blocked seats: Policies to block middle seats on wide-body aircraft and either aisle or window seats on narrower planes.

  • 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 among sick passengers.

We weighted the first two criteria more heavily in this analysis, given that these steps require financial sacrifice from the airlines (and ensure passengers aren’t seated next to one another).

As you can see, American’s decision to walk back its flight capacity limits hurt the airline greatly in these rankings.

Bad looks and elbow bumps

Finally, we canvassed our in-house travel experts for examples of both customer-friendly and negative policies that did not fall under the criteria above. These “bad looks” and “elbow bumps” are more subjective than the other categories, yet catch many important policies that did not fall under either the flexible booking or health grades.

We nudged the total grade in the winners and losers table above up by half a grade (e.g., B to B+) for each positive “elbow bump” and down half a grade for each negative “bad look.” The “net elbow bumps” are the number of elbow bumps minus the number of bad looks. So a negative “net elbow bumps” score in that winners and losers table means that an airline had more bad looks than elbow bumps.

Since all these airlines now require face coverings, we gave a special elbow bump to those that went to special lengths to enforce these policies.

“Yellow card” warning system for face coverings.

(1) Poor conveying of policy changes; (2) didn’t allow online itinerary changes for several months.

Strong face covering enforcement.

Clear, customer-first information and policies.

Strong face covering enforcement.

Ran fare sales while other airlines were keeping prices high.

(1) Created a confusing voucher policy, which changed several times; (2) devalued mileage program.

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.

Keep in mind that 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 grades 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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