New Data: The 10 Worst Airlines in the US


“I see you. I’ll get your water when I have a minute. Jesus Christ.”

Um, did… that… really just happen?

Strike three for Delta Airlines. More like strike 37. The bad service had reached the “Orbitz threshold”, where I would no longer purchase tickets from Delta, even if cheaper than the competition.

Life is too short to deal with surly nonsense, and — upon landing back in SF — I decided to poll Twitter to find out which airlines create the most collective misery. This would serve as my must-avoid list.

I also learned that two start-ups called PeopleBrowsr and Dolores Labs were simultaneously figuring out the same thing with really cool social search analysis.

Here are the results: the 10 worst airlines in the US according to customers…

Twitter + Slinkset

I used Twitter to drive people to a customized Digg-like page for the worst airlines, where companies were submitted and then voted up and down. Cast your vote here.

#1 – The Worst – Delta
Also submitted as “Delta Blows”, Delta get the ultimate F- for customer service, especially when you include the votes for Northwest Airlines (NWA) below, which they’ve absorbed into twin forces of suckiness. Bad customer service earned the Delta empire more than 30% of the total votes.

#2 – US Airways
#3 – United
#4 – American
#5 – AirTran
#6 – Northwest
#7 – Southwest
#8 – Frontier
#9 – Continental
#10 – Air France (?)

See the exact percentages here.

Of course, there are limits and weaknesses to this data-gathering approach: the availability heuristic. In other words, as commenter John Fawkes observed: are the “worst” airlines just the most commonly flown? Would we also find them at the top of the “best” list?

To make this methodology work, it seems you would have to also run a “best airlines” poll using the same method, and compare the two lists. If an airline is on the worst list and not the best list, then and only then should you declare that popular opinion has voted it down.

The data published below via Dolores Labs accounts for size differences, and their full post includes observations on the best airlines based on sentiment in tweets.

Dolores Labs

Dolores Labs — think Amazon Mechanical Turk on steroids — published the PeopleBrowsr results in beautiful graphic form. The best and worst airlines were determined through frequency analysis of positive and negative sentiment words in tweets mentioning the airlines.

Here are the worst, in descending order of Hulk-smash feelings:

#1 – The Worst – Northwest (= Delta)
#2 – US Airways
#3 – Delta
#4 – American
#5 – United

[Note that the top 5 are the same as the top 4 in the comparable Twitter poll]

#6 – Continental
#7 – Frontier
#8 – JetBlue
#9 – Alaska
#10 – Southwest (by far the best large airline, based on this analysis)

So what are ‘negative sentiment’ words? Here are a few you might have muttered yourself:

See the full Dolores Labs results and insight here. Damn, them boys have some skills with making data sexy. Check out their Fleshmap from crowdsourced sex input. But I digress…

The moral of the story? Drop the extra $30 on tickets so you don’t feel like doing this to fools:


If you’ve ever fantasized about taking time off to globe-trot, I would highly recommend Rolf Pott’s Vagabonding. It is one of only two books I took with me when I traveled the world for 18 months. Outside Magazine founding editor Tim Cahill calls Vagabonding “the most sensible book of travel related advice ever written.”

I recently partnered with Rolf to release the exclusive audiobook for Vagabonding. For more on this incredible book, click here.

Posted on: October 1, 2009.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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149 comments on “New Data: The 10 Worst Airlines in the US

  1. While I know airlines in general are not strongholds of customer service, I am surprised that Delta has deteriorated so much. I used to do telephone interviews for them and their screening requirements for customer care instincts were TOUGH. I had to fail even the nicest people sometimes because of the smallest hint of bad grammar, unprofessional ideas, or a momentary, joking lapse of displaying customer focus.


  2. Haha nice article – it certainly doesn’t help that the poor state of the economy is forcing airlines to cut costs, thus sacrificing our safety &convenience.

    Did you use wordle to create your tag cloud?


  3. I travel a ton myself and have had bad experiences with every airline (doing out ORD-SFO-SYD this weekend on United). Wondering if the statistical data accounts for size of airline in relation to negative feedback. Should the best research account for numbers as a percentage, rather than volume of comments?


    • Absolutely! Singapore Airlines… followed very closely by Air New Zealand… would have to be the ultimate benchmark of what ‘A First Class Airline’ should be.
      – Cabin Staff who are friendly, attentive and helpful without question
      – Modern aircraft that aren’t configured like a ‘can of sardines’
      – Ground Crew and Customer Services staff who truly understand the meaning of ‘Service’
      – An overall ‘Nothing is a Problem’ attitude, no matter where you happen to be on the planet!

      Bottom line though… if you insist on buying cheap tickets, then you get what you pay for and complaining is really a ‘mute’ point! It;s you’re own fault


  4. Hey Tim – this is great to know – I will be traveling to USA next year and was looking into booking some flights – now I know which oens to stear clear from!

    My best flight experience worldwide was with Malaysian Airlines – such friendly staff and know exactly how to look after you on thier long flights to Europe!

    It would be interesting to know what people are thinking of the airlines in Europe as well?

    / Nathan


    • Nathan I know this is out of date to help you choose an airline to fly transatlantic but Lufthansa was voted the best intercontinental airline for 2011 for outstanding customer service and quality…I loathe Delta having been on the receiving end of so many bad experiences their complete lack of customer care has dished out! I will never fly Delta again! Am going to do my homework every time I fly and find an airline who understands that if your customers are unhappy one, one they will leave!


  5. I don’t fly often, but I went from Montreal (Canada) to Guangzhou (China) last year on a Northwest Airline plane and I must say their service was A1. The staff was polite and helpful, and even the food was good. They exceeded my expectactions. Maybe I was lucky. If they rank among the worst, I cannot imagine what the best one are doing.


  6. Yes these airlines have definitely taken the fun out of air travel for me.

    My best airline experience across the pond was Heathrow to JFK on Air India. Sitting in coach I asked for a beer with the chicken curry dinner, and the flight attendant handed me three cans. When I told her one was fine, she said maybe I would get thirsty later. Great service all around.


  7. I’ll be the first one to say that service on domestic carriers has definitely declined, no dispute there.

    However, I don’t think it’s fair to say that those airlines have the worst service because they generate the most noise in social media. They serve the large majority of passengers and should generate more in terms of pure numbers. Compare those numbers to their passenger loads and I think you’ll get a different story.


  8. You should list these “sucky” airlines next to the list of the largest carriers in the United States. Otherwise, there is no baseline to compare your results too.

    Of course Delta, American, and United are going to see more poor reviews because of the shear volume of spoiled Americans that travel with those brands.

    We jet set all over the world in a matter of hours and yet we find reasons to nitpick. Tell you’re great grandfather how you go from New York to LA in 5 hours and he’ll tell you how he lost 2 siblings to cholera during his real life experience on the Oregon Trail.

    On the other hand, the airline industry is constantly plagued with ever diminishing margins to try and turn a profit. Therefore, customer service goes a long way and I agree that Delta can probably use a refresher course. However, I would put up with an ornery stewardess much better if I had more than 3.5 inches of leg room for my 6’2 frame.

    Maybe if they stop squeezing us like sardines into their flying machines we’ll stop complaining about the service. Are you listening, Continental?

    I hear they’re going to keep us standing up on short commuter flights and have us sit facing each other military style on longer trips to increase the amount of passengers by up to 50%.

    In the land of no legroom, the airline that doesn’t cause blood clots is king!


  9. lol, Bruce Lee rocks.

    Interesting analysis and wordle visualizations from the social search engines. The correlations look amusing.

    As for the crowdsourced sex input, I’ll take a closer look at the Skin to Skin visualizations and browse through the heat maps of data. Overall, this type of sex data is always pleasurable. Yeah, the back of a women’s neck is a sweet spot :-) .


  10. Considering all the airlines I have flown coach I can whole heartedly state that “they all suck” and that there are no exceptions to the rule unless you spend the big bucks to fly first class. It’s unfortunate, but its just the way it is at this period in time.


  11. I’m surprised Tim would publish such fantastical data. Ok, so maybe it got Delta right, but Southwest at #6?!?! Best airline of all-time. Twitter data must be bogus.

    Air-Asia is catching on and will soon be breaking into the US market fyi. It’s like a southwest without the song, but better food. And cheap.

    Be well all,


  12. Wow! Cool word visualisation!!

    I am definitely going to check peopleBrowsr! What a cool tool with lots of application this could have.

    Imagine you could build an automated contrarian stock investing based on twitter tweets, etc.

    ohohoh very exciting!! Need to do some more digging on that!

    Thanks for the great post


  13. Wow – I’ve flown with Delta a couple of times, and I’ve always had a positive experience. The cabin crew were incredibly helpful and pleasant, my flights were punctual, my seat was comfortable (regular ordinary class seating) and my food was as good as you can expect for any airplane food.


  14. I live in Charlotte. The two main airlines that fly out of Charlotte are:

    1. US Airways
    2. Delta

    And I agree both those airlines suck.

    One time I flew Delta I was connect through Atlanta (I hate the Atlanta airport). We were on a small plane so we didn’t have a jet way. We exit the plane and need to walk under these crappy tent like hallways to get into the terminal. Except they had the way we were supposed to go coned off. There were Delta people standing around who did nothing. Finally I had to move the cones and figure out the correct way back to the terminal (I was about the 15th person off the plane).

    When we get inside the terminal there is an escalator that leads from the flight deck up to the terminal level. I get on the escalator take one step on it and they turn it off. The Delta lady who did this at the top of the stairs doesn’t even say sorry just looks at us. Here’s to Delta.