Summer travel season is here and you're scouring the web looking for the best airfares. Well, before you book that deal, make sure the airline you're planning to fly has a good reputation.

Within the last few weeks, we've seen new tallies of customer airline satisfaction from three prominent organizations. So the question is…which rankings should you trust?

The answer is all of them. Just look for the similarities in the collective wisdom of their findings rather than the differences. As you'll soon see, the trend is pretty clear across all major studies: Discount airlines are your best choices and the full-fare airlines stink it up.

The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) results finds discounters in the three tops spots. The ACSI is an independent national benchmark of customer satisfaction out of Clark's alma mater, the University of Michigan. All scores are calculated on a 100-point system:

  1. JetBlue earned an 83
  2. Southwest scored an 81
  3. "Others" including Alaska Air, Spirit, and Frontier (smaller airlines grouped together as one entity for scoring purposes) checked in at 72
  4. Delta came in with a 68, their highest score since 1999
  5. American/US Air had a 65/64 score
  6. United/Continental got a 62

You may notice that Sprit Air -- known for its ridiculously low airfares -- is part of the group that came in at No. 3. But that high rank belies any otherwise stinky airline.

In fact, an analysis from British-based aviation research group SkyTrax named Spirit the only U.S. carrier among the world's worst airlines!  Having said that, I should note that I flew Spirit once for a 2-hour flight with my wife and two small children. The experience was no better or worse than any other airline, in my opinion.

Anecdotally, I've heard of co-workers who grabbed a low Spirit airfare just to be shocked by all the add-on fees. So definitely factor that into the price.

The ACSI findings are pretty simpatico with the Airline Quality Ratings (AQR), the latter a joint statistical research tally from Purdue University and Wichita State University. Here are the latest AQR findings, with the airline's 2012 AQR ranking in parentheses:

  1. Virgin America (new to the ranking this year)
  2. JetBlue (3)
  3. AirTran (1)
  4. Delta (6)
  5. Hawaiian (2)
  6. Alaska (5)
  7. Frontier (4)
  8. Southwest (7)
  9. US Airways (8)
  10. American (10)
  11. American Eagle (15)
  12. SkyWest (9)
  13. ExpressJet (not rated in 2011)
  14. United (12)

Several things leap out at me from this list. First, you again see the basic trend of discounters like Virgin, JetBlue, and AirTran up at the top of the tally. Second, Spirit is nowhere to be found! Third, full-fare airline Delta is up two spots from last year, which corroborates their upward swing also seen on the ACSI. And fourth, Clark's beloved Southwest comes in at No. 8, one position lower than last year. That's obviously a point where the AQR and the ACSI differ greatly.

Isn't it interesting that Virgin America is at the top of the heap on the AQR? I asked Clark about this and he said, "I've never flown them, but I've heard great things from those who have. They offer very decent fares and a special something about the caliber of quality and service. They're supposed to be the first U.S. airline to be on par with the great Asian airlines."

Choose wisely before you book. Happy flying this summer!


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