United Airlines says it's the best in the world, so why is it worse than Southwest?

Just because you claim it doesn't mean it's true.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
Airplane window with a view of an airplane wing and the sky

The best? Or not yet?

Katherin Ziegler/Getty Images

I'm a little confused at the best of times.

I look around the world, I listen to what people say, and, too often, murmur to myself: "Oh, why?"

I'm especially troubled by boastiness. 

You know, when football coaches or CEOs insist on claiming big things while your own ears and mind whisper: "Wait a minute. Are you sure about that?"

My ears and mind whispered quite loudly when I heard United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby claim his airline's goal was "to really establish ourselves as the biggest and the best airline in the history of aviation."

That was in April of last year.

Also: These are my 5 must-have devices for work travel

Astonishingly, by the end of last year, United had apparently already done it.

Kirby, in a message to staff, crowed: "In my estimation, we've already become the best airline in the world and it's our challenge for 2023 to continue to get better and raise the bar every year."

It's actually quite hard to pat yourself on the back and write at the same time. That sentence in itself was quite a feat. But Kirby wasn't quite done. He again repeated: "I often say we're building the biggest and best airline in the history of aviation."

Instantly, therefore, I reassessed my image of United. I'd clearly got the airline all wrong.

Yes, I'd recognized that United hadn't endured the same sort of Christmas meltdown as Southwest. But who had? I noted, too, that United was offering enterprising mutterings on all sorts of futuristic subjects, even if reality still occasionally bit.

But could it be that I'd failed to recognize United's complete genius, its supreme excellence, its embrace of global superiority?

Also: The 4 best travel VPNs

I checked the airline's Twitter feed, just to see all the joyous messages from customers.

But no, there were too many tweets like this: "I would love to sleep on this plane. Too bad I have a screen pushing ads pointed at my face that I can't turn off. Thanks, @united for confirming for me how much you suck as an airline."

Or this: "WARNING: @united does not cover any damages to snowboard/ski equipment. They destroyed almost $1,000 of my bf's equipment and offered him a $300 flight credit 'as a courtesy.'"

As so many in this troubled world, I needed some objectivity. I needed someone in authority to tell me whether United was, indeed, the world's best.

As if sensing my turbulence, the Wall Street Journal came to my rescue. It published its 2022 list of the best and worst airlines in America.

And there was United at the top.

Well, almost at the top.

Well, nearer the top than the bottom.

Well, fourth.

Fourth? There I was getting confused again. How can the best airline in the world only be the fourth best in America?

According to the Journal, Delta is the best, followed by Alaska and, would you believe it, Southwest.

I was swamped by disbelief. Could the Journal have go it wrong? Surely Rupert Murdoch hadn't accidentally got on a United flight and endured a bad experience, had he?

Also: How to keep your home secure when you travel 

The rankings suggested that United's biggest deficiencies lay in two-hour tarmac delays and mishandled baggage.

Even more disturbingly, the airline wasn't ranked the best in any category -- these ranged from on-time arrivals to canceled flights, extreme delays, and involuntary bumping, a subject with which United is quite familiar.

I want to be charitable.

Perhaps United has made such stellar strides that they've been too sprightly for anyone to see.

I feel less charitable, however, toward those who claim absolute superiority when the evidence may still be somewhat lacking.

I'm sure United has improved. I'm sure it feels slightly more shiny than it used to.

But if you're really the best, please don't claim it. Let others do the talking for you.

Editorial standards