Virgin America landed at the top of the latest Consumer Reports ratings of airlines in its first appearance on the list, receiving some of the highest customer satisfaction scores any airline has in years.
The airline, which made its debut in 2007, got high marks in all areas that the carriers were judged on, especially baggage handling even though there's a $25 charge for first and second checked bags.
Spirit Airlines found itself at the bottom of the ratings, with the lowest marks across the board. The carrier has some of the lowest fares in the industry but charges fees for everything from booking a flight to carrying on a bag. Readers also complained about Spirit's seats, some of the tightest spaces in the industry.
Consumer Reports' ratings are based on a February survey of 16,663 subscribers who flew a combined 31,732 domestic flights. They were asked to rate their satisfaction with the airlines' check-in ease, cabin-crew service, cabin cleanliness, seating comfort, baggage handling, and in-flight entertainment.
Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways also were rated highly, especially for their baggage handling. Readers liked that Southwest lets fliers check in two bags for free and JetBlue lets them check one bag at no charge. The two carriers also received high marks for their check-in ease and cabin crew service.
"While other airlines on the list like Southwest and JetBlue have done a very good job of satisfying fliers, Virgin America is a cut above in the eyes of our readers," said Amanda Walker, senior editor of Consumer Reports.
Readers said they liked flying Virgin America partly because their leather seat cushions were comfortable even in Economy class. They also rated the carrier's in-flight entertainment system highly.
"With new planes, fleetwide WiFi, touch-screen entertainment and award-winning service, we take pride in our operational excellence and the commitment our teammates have made to creating a really great domestic airline," Virgin America spokeswoman Jennifer Thomas told Today in the Sky. "We see today's Consumer Reports result as continued proof that we're moving in the right direction and delivering on our promise to guests to elevate the air travel experience."
Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza defended his airline on CBS' This Morning, saying that "we care what our customers care about, which is price."
"One of the things that Consumer Reports survey didn't ask is 'where do you get the lowest fare?,'" He said. "They asked about leg room, they asked about check-in, bag fees, and things like that. But the total price they pay on Spirit Airlines is less than they pay on anyone else."
Baldanza compared Spirit Airlines to McDonald's, saying, that "No one goes into McDonald's and is surprised they don't see filet mignon on the menu. When they come to Spirit, they know what they're getting. They know they'll get a lower total price than they'll get anywhere else."
JetBlue also shined for its in-flight entertainment, while Southwest did not. Southwest offers wireless entertainment on your personal electronic device. JetBlue also outscored Southwest on cabin cleanliness and seating comfort. JetBlue passengers get a couple of extra inches of leg room compared with most other airlines.
Hawaiian Airlines received high marks for check-in ease, cabin service, cleanliness, and baggage handling. Hawaiian's in-flight entertainment was not so popular.
Passengers like Alaska Airline's check-in, cabin staff and baggage handling. Yet they weren't so impressed with the airline's seats and entertainment options.
Delta Airlines and Frontier Airlines got very good marks for check-in ease, but everything else was mediocre. Delta got low marks for seating comfort.
Lower-rated carriers, such as American Airlines, United Airlines, and US Airways, all received the lowest rating possible for cabin cleanliness, seating comfort, and in-flight entertainment.
The full report can be found online at ConsumerReports.org and in the July 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
Here are the rankings based on an overall reader score (on a 0-100 scale):
1. Virgin America, 89
2. Southwest Airlines, 85
3. JetBlue Airways, 85
4. Hawaiian Airlines, 82
5. Alaska Airlines, 81
6. Frontier Airlines, 78
7. Delta Air Lines, 71
8. US Airways, 66
9. American Airlines, 66
10. United Airlines, 63
11. Spirit Airlines, 50