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Airline of the Year? Maybe, Maybe Not

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This time of year, the news channel pundits all do some sort of “best of the year” or “most influential of the year” summary. “Fine,” I thought, “I’ll do one about airlines.” But after staring at a blank screen for an hour, I came to a conclusion: The rationale will be different from those that zero in on political leaders, athletes, or entertainers. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}

In fact, my stab at “airline of the year” reminds me of a very old joke. A man notices another man hitting himself on the head with a hammer. “Why do you do that?” asks the first man; the answer, “Because it feels so good when I stop.” No airline did anything really good this year. Thus, as travel in coach/economy class keeps getting worse—and fees keep escalating—kudos this year go to airlines that didn’t make things worse. In that spirit, here are my nominations.

Airline of the year: JetBlue. While the other lines keep shrinking seats and hiking fees, JetBlue continues to offer the industry’s best legroom—plus an option for lots more at a reasonable surcharge—and it continues to accept one checked bag at no extra cost. JetBlue also opted for an in-flight Wi-Fi system that works over water, in contrast to the land-based system most other domestic lines use. Sadly, JetBlue has emulated most of its competitors in adding stiff fees for ticket changes. Still, wherever it flies, and so long as fares are reasonably competitive, JetBlue is a clear choice over whichever line is in second place.

And second place would be Southwest. That line’s “bags fly free” campaign highlights its current competitive focus—two bags checked without an additional fee—but it also boasts some other key features. Chief among these is the ability to make ticket changes with no fee: You don’t get your money back, but you can apply 100 percent of what you pay toward another ticket. And Southwest is the only domestic line to retain special fares for senior travelers. They’re usually higher than the line’s best fares for travelers of any age, but when the cheap tickets sell out, seniors get a break. If not for the tight seating and free-for-all boarding, Southwest would certainly challenge JetBlue at the top.

Honorable mentions: Air Canada, American, Continental, Delta, and United have resisted the temptation to stuff 10 seats in each row of their 777s and stick with the much more comfortable nine-seat rows that make the 777 a top choice wherever it flies. At least they’ve resisted so far—but in the airline business, never underestimate the power of a bad idea.

Air Canada, AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, United, US Airways, and Virgin America have installed, or are installing, onboard Wi-Fi on most or all their planes. Although Wi-Fi is an extra-fee option, being able to spend otherwise idle time online while on a long flight is a big plus for many travelers, so long as the person in front of you doesn’t lean the seat back in your face so you can’t open your laptop.

Uncertainty of the year: How much Continental and how much United will survive in the merger? According to most surveys, Continental is far ahead of United in general customer satisfaction, and presumably the new mainly ex-Continental management will want to retain what works at Continental rather than continue United’s generally underwhelming performance. But one United feature, Economy Plus, is popular with many United flyers, so many of us hope that those ex-Continental types don’t nuke it for NIH reasons.

Airliner of the year: This may come as a surprise, but to me, the larger Embraer models—170 through 195—provide the best option available for coach/economy travelers. Who knew you could still find reasonably big planes with no middle seats?

Obviously, there’s far too little room for the flip-side list of bad guys. Let’s hope that, in another year, the “best” list will be a bit more robust.

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