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Which airline is best for domestic consulting travel? Well, there’s a lot of different ways you can parse that question. Which airline provides the best rewards? Which airline will get you there on-time most often? Which airline provides the best fares most often? Which airline has the best schedule for where you go most often? Which airline is most comfortable? Which airline has the highest customer satisfaction? All of these factors go into which is “best”, but today we’ll be giving our take on which airline gives the best overall EXPERIENCE for the frequent business traveler.
Over the past decade, a lot has changed for the business traveler. In an effort to boost the bottom line, airlines have added or increased fees on everything from bags to beverages. Still, some airlines struggled to stay profitable, as evidenced by American Airlines filing for Chapter 11 in November 2011. Yet, airlines (including AA) have bounced back, recording record profits of well over $12B combined in 2017. Clearly, somebody is buying a lot of drinks! Part of this bounce-back came because airlines started paying attention to the data, realizing that per seat profits are highest for business travelers. The good news is that they have begun to pump some of these dollars back into the business traveler’s experience.
1. United Airlines
United has taken a PR beating in the past year, and for good reason. But, from a business traveler’s perspective, the airline is slowly increasing the number of planes that boast its new Polaris premium experience (on about 36% of planes as of publication). For those who have experienced Polaris, there is a lot to like – bedding from Saks 5th Avenue in the cabin, and completely redesigned lounges that are actually a pleasure to be in. We’ll take United’s in-flight experience over American, and its larger route map and network vs. Delta. To fully maximize your United experience, boost the miles you’re earning, and fast-track your way to a Polaris upgrade, the United℠ Explorer Card is a must-have.
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2. Delta Airlines
Delta used to be the clear cut winner, but after continual cutbacks to their premium rewards program, the airline has shunned a significant amount of its most important segment. A quick peek at any frequent flyer forum confirms how many have become disgruntled with Delta’s apparent oversight of its most loyal customers. Still, the airline’s excellent Delta One Premium product is being rolled out on more planes, as are updated lounges at hubs around the country. If you’re lucky enough to land one of the Delta One Suites on a long flight, you won’t regret it. Plus, flight upgrades still appear to be easier to come by on Delta vs. American. To get free checked bags and turbocharge your way to Platinum (the minimum status worth having on Delta, in our opinion), the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express will be your new best friend.
3. Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines recently acquired Virgin Airlines, swapping out Virgin’s iconic purple for its shade of blue. While there are those that will argue Virgin’s premium product far outdid Alaska’s, frequent Virgin flyers will be pleased with the much more robust Alaska rewards program. Overall though, when it comes to premium cabin amenities, lounges, and route selection, Alaska is a step behind the legacy carriers. Still, if you are Seattle-based and find yourself flying Alaska often, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card gets you the airline’s famous annual companion fare.
4. American Airlines
American Airlines is the one carrier that has really fallen from grace. The airline is largely panned by business travelers (unless it’s the only option), and AA has struggled to lure them back. Customer service seems to be a forgotten virtue on AA, and upgrades are the toughest to clear compared to the other legacy carriers. As business travelers, we’re extremely loyal, but if that loyalty doesn’t seem to be reciprocal, we will move on. American seems to have fallen victim to this, as it receives the highest number of complaints of any large carrier (even on a “per-capita” basis, as AA flies more passengers and routes than Delta and United). A bright spot for American are its seats – among the most comfortable that you’ll find among large U.S. carriers. If you prefer AA, or are based in an AA hub city, make your life easier by getting the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®.
5. Southwest Airlines
We already know what you’re thinking – Southwest doesn’t even offer first or business class. This is true. But, if you’re looking for a cheap fares or advantageous change policies, Southwest is hard to beat. If you’re looking for a premium experience, you’d do best looking elsewhere. Southwest A-List Preferred doesn’t get you much in terms of premium experience, but combine it with the Southwest Companion Pass, and all of a sudden your partner can fly on any flight you are on for free (yes, even if you purchase an award ticket). The easiest way to earn the Companion Pass? By earning 110,000 Rapid Rewards points, easily doable via the sign-up bonuses of the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card. It’s how one of our team members earned the Companion Pass within the first 3 months of 2019! His partner now flies with him for free (just fees and taxes) through December 2020.
Remember, “best” often comes down to personal preferences. There is plenty of data to support a more scientific approach, but according to our real word experience, here is our ranking for the best airlines for the business travel experience:
- United – better premium offering, and MileagePlus offers more flexibility than Delta SkyMiles
- Delta – in second place until premium cabins catch up with United Polaris
- Alaska – overall better customer service than American, easier upgrade clearances
- American – at least there is a premium offering, right?
- Southwest – great when you are prioritizing flexibility over a premium experience
These rankings could easily change by next year, so we’re flying 4 airlines this year to stay informed. Feel free to share how you would rank them, and in the meantime check out 5 Insane Perks of Travel at Elite Consulting Firms.