These 3 Airlines Get the Most Hate on Social Media

February 18, 2016, 2:21 PM UTC
Long lines of passengers queue up at the Philadelphia International Airport.
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 10: Long lines of passengers queue up to go through increased security check points as news rules for carry on luggage cause long delays at the Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Thursday, August 11, 2006. Crude oil traded near its lowest level this month after a foiled terrorist attempt to attack airlines raised concern travelers will avoid flying, reducing jet-fuel demand. (Photo by Bradley C. Bower/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Photograph by Bradley C. Bower — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Three U.S. airlines top a new list of the most hated airlines in the world, underscoring how far passengers believe America’s airlines have slipped when it comes to customer service. The numbers come at a time when U.S.-based airlines are reaping record profits.

The survey, conducted by Delray Beach, Fla.-based marketing agency Fractl on behalf of charter company Stratos Jets, analyzed 1.3 million tweets during the last holiday travel period for 70 world airlines.

Spirit Airlines, the no-frills, Florida-based carrier, came in at number one, with a negative score of -0.15 score (a perfect “all-negative” score would have been a -1). It was closely followed by another discount airline, Frontier Airlines (-0.1) and American Airlines (-0.09), the lowest-scoring legacy carrier. U.S. airlines dominated the list, with five of the worst airlines based in the United States. (Also on the list were Delta Air Lines and low-cost carrier Allegiant.)

By contrast, no American carriers made the positive list, which was dominated by Korean Air (+0.57), Canadian charter airline Air North (+0.54) and German discount airline TUIfly (+0.53).

Fractl ran a sampling of the electronic conversations through a sentiment analysis algorithm to determine how positive or negative passengers felt about an airline. Fractl says it wanted to test the overall responsiveness of airlines during the last Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season, which is considered to be the most stressful time to fly.

“Many fliers take to Twitter, whether to vent about, or praise, their experiences,” says Signe Nicklas, a spokeswoman for Fractl. “So how do airlines respond?”

Surprisingly, Fractl found that the Mexican low-fare carrier Volaris had the fastest response time (4 minutes, 12 seconds on average). The fastest American carrier, JetBlue Airways, reacted to customers within 5 minutes, 36 seconds.

Among some of the conclusions:

  • Fliers care about their comfort, or lack thereof. The word “seat” showed up 5,286 times in the tweets.
  • Air travelers can quickly get frustrated. Profanity appeared 14,490 times among the tweets.
  • Still, fliers can be polite. There were 101,798 “thank yous” in the data.

Why are U.S. airlines so hated?

Although Fractl cautions not to jump to any conclusions from the results — the algorithm simply looked for words that carry a positive or negative connotation — it’s hard to not come away with the impression that domestic airlines are seriously challenged in their customer service departments. The highest-scoring U.S. airline was Sun Country, with a positive score of 0.23; among the major airlines Southwest Airlines (LUV) came in highest at number 42, with a positive score of just 0.18.

The underperforming airlines, particularly Spirit (SAVE), Frontier and American (AAL), have a long history of low customer-service rankings. Spirit, under the leadership of its previous CEO, Ben Baldanza, practically invited passengers to hate it. And they did. The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index ranks Spirit dead last, with a score of only 54 out of a possible 100. Frontier earned only four more points in the same survey.

The Fractl findings are likely to upset American air travelers, who probably don’t need a reminder of how awful customer service has become. But the results are particularly troubling in light of the record earnings the industry is reporting. American Airlines, for example, reported an astounding $6.3 billion profit last year, up 50 percent from 2014. Overall, the domestic airline industry is expected to rake in a record $19.2 billion in profits, thanks to lower fuel prices and reduced competitor as the result of several mergers.

In other words, the currently super-profitable domestic airline industry isn’t worrying if customers hate it. With earnings like this, it doesn’t need to.