America's airlines are finally getting better

Virgin America AirbusVirgin AmericaVirgin America Airbus.

Leading consumer aviation website Skytrax published its list of the 100 best airlines in the world on Tuesday.

Dubai’s Emirates took the top spot for the fourth time since 2001.

In fact, a Middle Eastern airline has won five of the last six years.

And once again none of America’s airlines even come close to the top of the list.

Even though Virgin America was named the Best Airline in North America for a second consecutive year, the San Francisco-based low-cost carrier could only muster a 25th place finish in the overall rankings.

At the same time, the country’s three legacy carriers — Delta, United, and American — finished in 35th, 68th, and 77th respectively.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Because, since 2014, US airlines have climbed steadily up the Skytrax rankings.

Virgin America InteriorVirgin AmericaVirgin America.

The Skytrax rankings are based on the impressions of 19.2 million travellers from 104 different countries collected over the past year. The survey, which covered more than 280 airlines, measured 41 parameters ranging from boarding procedures to seat comfort to the quality of service.

Over the past three years, survey results show that many of America’s airlines have take dramatic steps forward. Since 2014, Virgin America has made the biggest jump up the rankings with a 21-spot improvement. However, Hawaiian, Delta, and American have also show impressive improvement by moving up 16, 14, and 12 spots respectively.

At the same time, JetBlue jumped six-spots, Alaska improved nine-spots, while Southwest gained five.

So what’s changed?

Over the past three years, US airlines have recovered from their near-death experience during the great recession. With lower fuel prices and greater management discipline, airline have begun to restore services and amenities cut during the lean years of the recession. Free snacks, drinks, and in-flight entertainment have all been introduced on board domestic and international flights.

In addition, all of the America’s major airlines are currently engaged a massive round of fleet renewals that will see its older jets replaced with modern, more fuel efficient planes.

At the same time, not everything is perfect.The reviled baggage and service fees are here to stay. Although bathed in pleasant mood lighting, the new generation interiors of many major US airlines also feature highly uncomfortable slimline seats. In addition, lavatories have been shrunken to make way for extra passenger capacity.

Delta Airlines interiorDeltaDelta Airlines Interior.

The only major US carrier to move down in the Skytrax rankings over the past few years has been United. Since 2004, the Chicago-based airline has fallen from 53rd all the way down to 68th in the rankings.

Much of this can be attributed to the United’s turbulent 2010 merger with Continental. Airlines struggled to integrate the newly formed airline. For many years, the merged United essentially operated as two separate airlines under a single brand name. And to this day, more than half a decade after the merger, some parts of the United-Continental operation is still not fully integrated.

Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin America for $2.6 billion in April. It is unclear what will become of the award-winning brand. Many industry analysts believe Alaska will retire the Virgin America name over the next year or two. However, Alaska CEO Brad Tilden indicated in June that his company may keep the stylish brand around after the merger is complete.

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