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Airlines Performance

Passengers' assessments of discount airlines are scattered all over. So much about the experience of air travel is circumstantial, as both a reading of airlines reviews and our own encounters attest.

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Flights get cancelled or delayed for many reasons and rerouting is often more difficult when flying a smaller airline than one with a larger fleet and pricier tickets. Bags go missing, but are usually found, and ticket agents can be helpful, but aren't always. All these factors can, and do, influence what consumers say in reviews.

The issues that take up the most space in travelers' comments concern customer service, baggage handling, and seating comfort. Of the airlines reviews that we read, Southwest Airlines, AirTran Airways, and JetBlue Airways garner mostly upbeat reviews for these criteria while other low-cost airlines receive poor or mixed grades.

Airlines Customer Service.

Possibly the hottest topic broached in cheap airlines reviews concerns customer service, which travelers say can make or break a flight experience. Reviews for both Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways trend strongly positive for this performance attribute even though each airline engenders a small share of ill will for the usual array of issues -- reservation errors, flight delays and cancellations, and indifferent employees. On Viewpoints, for example, passengers rate AirTran and Southwest among the best. Massive praise is heaped on AirTran in reviews at this site, where one flyer says the ground and on-board team deserves a standing ovation for making flights relaxing and stress-free and another comments on the staff's helpfulness and compassion as he and two siblings made their way from various cities to a family funeral. Southwest likewise receives compliments in reviews; frequent travelers commend the in-flight service, friendly and polite employees, and free drinks and snacks, with several asserting that they refuse to fly other carriers. Yahoo Travel notes that for several years Southwest has been named consumers' favorite airline.

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JetBlue Airways, another of our top picks, ranked third (behind AirTran and Southwest) for the fewest complaints per 100,000 passenger boardings in the Department of Transportation's May 2012 report. It also earned the highest marks among low-cost carriers for overall customer satisfaction in a 2012 study by J.D. Power and Associates that specifically lauded JetBlue's in-flight services and the quality and condition of the aircraft. (Southwest came in a close second in the J.D. Power study.) Passengers who posted airlines reviews at Airline Quality say the JetBlue staff is friendly and helpful, professional and informative.

Spirit Airlines struggles to stay aloft in consumers' estimation. An article posted at Newsweek's Budget Travel site notes that Spirit has a long history of annoying customers and a short pilots' strike in June 2010 made matters worse. Travelers' follow-up comments on the site indicate that most are fed up with the airline's fee-happy policies and what they say is poor treatment of passengers; many assert they wouldn't fly Spirit even if the tickets were free. Travelers similarly vent their anger in airlines reviews on Viewpoints, where they rank Spirit very low and complain about rude staff, absurd extra charges, difficulty switching flights, and more. One reviewer even says he would rather pedal hundreds of miles on a tricycle than fly with this budget carrier again and cites irritants such as spam email messages and failure to alert passengers to a schedule change.

Other airlines that offer discount tickets, at least on some routes, don't fare as well with passengers as do our top picks. US Airways snags mixed reviews on Epinions where many passengers gripe about the overall experience but remark that customer service is decent despite delays and cancellations. Similarly pro and con views are expressed in reviews of Frontier Airlines. At Review Centre, for example, some travelers complain about unprofessional personnel and cancellation/rebooking confusion but others like the new planes, friendly service, and easy check-in.

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Allegiant Air, a budget carrier that doesn't fly to our chosen destinations, likewise claims fans and critics. Airlines reviews at Airline Quality praise the helpful service representatives and efficient baggage handling. At Epinions, however, travelers gripe about a host of issues. One reports that the check-in counter at a small airport was closed more than an hour before a scheduled flight, which meant everyone who arrived with an hour to spare missed the flight, and another grouses about the difficulty of reaching an agent when needing to change a reservation (can't be done online, the review explains).

Airlines Baggage Handling.

Experts at Galt Tech report that consumers' biggest complaint about airlines concerns baggage handling. Our picks for best discount airline dodge the bullet on this one. In fact, we found only one baggage-related grievance in airlines reviews of Southwest at Airline Quality, and most praise the quick and efficient unloading. Reviews of JetBlue on Viewpoints are likewise silent on the baggage-handling front. AirTran attracts only a handful of comments about luggage in reviews, and those we found simply say luggage handling is trouble-free and the airline seems to care about getting bags to the appointed destination in pristine condition.

Spirit earns a number of luggage-related dings in airlines reviews on Airline Quality. Most posts negatively refer to the fees associated with checking luggage and carry-ons and one tells of a family that missed a flight (and thus the first three days of a cruise) because baggage check-in was so slow.

US Airways' reputation for lost baggage has turned around in recent years. A post on Cranky Flier.com attributes the improvement to changes implemented in 2009 that involve scanning luggage as it goes on and comes off the aircraft at each stop. US Airways now ranks sixth (behind AirTran and JetBlue) for the fewest complaints per 1,000 passengers in DOT's monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. Airlines reviews of Frontier on Epinions contain some grumbling about lost luggage and the baggage-check fee, but most passengers say baggage handling is fast and efficient.

by Raechel Conover (Google+ Profile)

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