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February 27, 2017

In an age of extra fees and “basic economy,” not all airlines are created equally.

On Monday, air travel website The Points Guy released its first comprehensive rankings of U.S. airlines. On top: Alaska Airlines.

For its rankings, The Points Guy weighted each carrier's airfare (25 percent of score), route networks (15 percent), bag and change fees (10 percent), cabin comfort (10 percent), customer satisfaction (10 percent), frequent flier programs (10 percent), on-time arrivals (10 percent), lost baggage (5 percent), domestic lounges (3 percent) and involuntary bumps (2 percent). Data from 2016 was collected from commercial (e.g. Routehappy) and government (e.g. Department of Transportation) sources, except for the frequent flier programs, which The Points Guy based on its own info.

See where your favorite airline ranked in the list below.

10. Spirit

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Is anyone surprised that Spirit ranked last? Of course not. The airline has previously taken pride in its terrible reputation, “embracing” passenger complaints to explain its business model.

While earning a top score for cheap airfares, the airline did not place higher than fifth in any other category.

“Clearly the airline is riding on the lure of low prices, even though it also charges the second most baggage and change fees per passenger of all our airlines,” Julian Mark Kheel, analyst at The Points Guy, told Travel + Leisure. “As a company Spirit has to make money so it probably can't lower those fees without raising its airfares, but it needs to focus on vastly improving its customer experience if it wants to have any hope of bettering its reputation.”

9. Frontier

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Frontier's days of comforting passengers with a warm chocolate chip cookie are long gone.

The airline ranked in the bottom half of every classification The Points Guy looked at (except airfare).

8. Hawaiian

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Hawaiian scored low on The Points Guy ranking, although it could be primariy because of higher airfares (due to serving Hawaii) and the limited route network. The airline was one of T+L readers' favorites last year.

7. Delta Air Lines

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Because the analysis is based on 2016 data, Delta was the only major airline with “basic economy” airfares at the time. American and United are both adding the stripped fares (and service) this year.

“The expansion of those fares could affect the data in future years,” said Kheel. “Theoretically, we should see airfares decrease at airlines that launch basic economy, which is our most heavily weighted criteria, but this assumes Basic Economy fares are actually competitive with the low cost carriers which currently lead in our low airfares category.”

“Given the unpopularity of Basic Economy with certain customers, we might also see a decrease in customer satisfaction, which could very well offset any improvements in the airfare criteria,” he said.

6. Southwest

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Southwest, the only major U.S. airline still offering free checked baggage on domestic flights, came in at No. 6.

5. American Airlines

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American Airlines came in at No. 5—above Delta but decidedly below United.

4. JetBlue Airways

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JetBlue has done a good job putting itself in a seemingly different class from other “low-cost” airlines like Frontier and Spirit. Like Virgin America, JetBlue has a sort-of cult following that is comforted by the brand even amid new fees.

3. Virgin America

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Virgin topped The Points Guy scores in cabin comfort and not losing bags, but its limited route network and “pricey” bag and change fees kept it from ranking higher.

Virgin America took the No. 1 spot in T+L's airline rankings last year.

2. United Airlines

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United ranked second in both cabin comfort and lounge availability, and Kheel said the airline's high ranking was somewhat surprising.

“The airline's reputation hasn't been great in recent years, though it appears to be improving as of late under CEO Oscar Munoz,” said Kheel. “United didn't outright win in any of the 10 criteria in our study, but did perform strongly in a fairly broad range of them ... That was enough to vault it into second position, even though it has some work to do to improve its customer satisfaction ratings.”

1. Alaska Airlines

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Despite a “mediocre” route network—the airline is primarily serves the West CoastThe Points Guy ranked Alaska first among U.S. airlines. Whether that will hold or not could depend on how Alaska brings its recent acquisition into the fold.

“The ongoing merger of Alaska and Virgin America is a huge wildcard for future years,” Kheel told T+L. “Both airlines ranked highly overall in our study, with Alaska at No. 1 and Virgin America at No. 3, but both were weak in the number of cities and routes they serve.”

The combined route network could make for a serious competitor against the legacy airlines (Delta, American, United)—if what people like about the two individual airlines isn't lost in the mix.

“Successfully combining two different airline operations and cultures is extremely tricky,” said Kheel. “It's been a bumpy road for others in the past, so only time will tell how well Alaska and Virgin can navigate it.”

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