Airlines are in the news again, facing a fresh round of scrutiny. After the crash of a second Boeing 737 Max 8 on March 10th in Ethiopia, questions of the model’s safety led multiple countries to immediately ground the planes. Airlines in the US did not, however, despite pleas from flight crews and even senators. Those still flying the Max 8 when the FAA finally grounded them on March 13th were some of the country’s biggest brands, including American and Southwest.

As we saw from the data last summer, people seem to stick to airlines they have faith in, even over other considerations like scheduling and price. The old adage that everyone loves a bargain just doesn’t hold the same charm when you’re speeding along at 30,000 feet, it seems. But brand loyalty depends on trust, so CivicScience thought it time to check the data again.

Would last year’s controversies have any long-term effect? Do travelers still have a favorite airline? Are they still more likely to book flights based on brand rather than budget? With all this in mind, we asked adults for their take on nine of the most recognizable airlines (Southwest, Delta, American, United, JetBlue, Allegiant, Spirit, Frontier, and Alaska).

Still on Top

According to data collected in the past month, the three most favorable airlines are still Southwest, Delta, and American.

Delta and American saw a slight bump in favorability, with each sporting a gain of 1-2 percentage points since last year. Though Delta remains just ahead of American (16% to 14%), the two airlines are essentially tied for the second most popular airline brand, and both have a way to go before catching Southwest.

Last spring and summer Southwest suffered a string of issues, once when debris from a failed engine killed a passenger and again a few weeks later when a cracked window forced a plane to divert to a nearby airport. But any immediate lack of confidence in the airline seems to have mostly dissipated. Down a percentage point from last year’s analysis, Southwest still tops the list of airlines people are likely to choose, with 24% of respondents favoring it for travel in the next six months.

The Importance of Branding

Why do people keep coming back? Brand loyalty explains a lot of it for Southwest customers. Last year, about half of Southwest flyers indicated that flying with a specific airline is either very or somewhat important when they book a flight. This year, that portion is even higher at 65%. What’s more, 33% of last year’s Southwest flyers claimed price and schedule were the most important factors when they booked a flight. But that’s dropped to 25% this year, meaning among Southwest customers, the vast majority consider the brand to be just as important, or more important than price.

At similarly high levels, we see the same thing playing out for Delta and American: most respondents claiming the specific airline they fly is what’s important to them, not just the price. 

The good news for every airline, potentially, is that the importance of branding has continued to climb and seems destined to keep going up. Since 2016, the number of adult respondents who say specific airlines aren’t important at all when they book a flight has fallen 8 percentage points, from 29% to 22%. At the same time, the amount who consider brands to be very important has gone up 6 percentage points, from 16% to 21%. If this trend continues, the portion of overall travelers who care immensely about what brand of airline they’re flying will soon surpass flyers who only hunt for the best price.

Brand has always been a consideration for flyers, but its prominence has taken off in the last few years. It could be that once people are used to certain rewards systems, they tend to keep coming back for the perks, or that once passengers feel comfortable, they’re less inclined to take a chance on something new, even if it offers lower fares.

Whatever the reason, more flyers are interested in searching out and choosing a specific airline than before, even after recent controversies. It’s smooth skies ahead for any company that builds a reliable brand.