How to Pick the Best Airline for Your 2017 Business Travel

Dec 29, 2016

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Business travelers are some of the most frequent flyers out there, and at the beginning of each year, they have to decide which airline to book. In addition to taking all of the factors discussed last year into consideration, this year we created a simple decision matrix to narrow down your choices and give you the confidence that you’re making the best decision as we approach 2017.

Matrix Assumptions:

  • You are not bound by company travel policy to a particular airline.
  • You can book the flights yourself and either be reimbursed or bill to a client while keeping the frequent flyer miles.
  • You would pick an airline loyalty program in large part based on the global route network of the hub/focus city closest to your home. This gives you the most possible itineraries with nonstop flights.
  • Flyers with less than 10 segments a year shouldn’t be concerned with frequent flyer status or benefits.
  • Flyers with 11-29 segments a year need to decide whether earning status and miles should outweigh any convenience/cost factors.
  • Flyers with 30+ segments will qualify for elite status if all are flown on a single carrier. These flyers should become loyal to a carrier for most of their travel — although in cases of extreme price variance they should opt for a different carrier. Given the increased mileage earnings they’ll unlock, business travelers who fly this many segments can begin to exponentially increase returns on flying if they stay loyal to one airline.
  • If your closest hub/focus city is served by multiple airlines, you should choose your carrier based on airfare cost, personal preference from past flight experiences and which airline flies the nonstop routes you routinely need.

Decision Matrix

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Hub/Focus Airport Chart

Airline Hubs/Focus Cities
Alaska Anchorage (ANC), Los Angeles (LAX), Portland (PDX), San Diego (SAN), San Jose (SJC), Seattle (SEA)
American Charlotte (CLT), Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW), Los Angeles (LAX), Miami (MIA), New York-LaGuardia (LGA), New York-JFK (JFK), Phoenix (PHX), Philadelphia (PHL), Washington, D.C. (DCA)
Delta Atlanta (ATL), Boston (BOS), Detroit (DTW), Los Angeles (LAX), Minneapolis-Saint Paul (MSP), New York-JFK (JFK), Salt Lake City (SLC), Seattle (SEA)
JetBlue Boston (BOS), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), New York-JFK (JFK), Orlando (MCO)
Southwest Baltimore (BWI), Chicago-Midway (MDW), Dallas-Love Field (DAL), Houston-Hobby (HOU), Las Vegas (LAS), Los Angeles (LAX), Orlando (MCO), Phoenix (PHX), Tampa (TPA)
United Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), Denver (DEN), Houston (IAH), Los Angeles (LAX), Newark (EWR), San Francisco (SFO), Washington-Dulles (IAD)
Virgin America Dallas-Love Field (DAL), Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO)

Matrix Exceptions

  • If you routinely fly the same short-/medium-haul route and Alaska, JetBlue or Virgin America flies that route, choose and stick with one of those airlines. Qualifying for elite status is easier, elite benefits are more standardized and the points/miles you earn tend to be on the higher end of the spectrum compared to the legacy carriers’ currencies.
  • If you have a specific aversion to the airline with the largest route network from your closest hub/focus airport, you may be willing to forego convenience in favor of the loyalty program and flying experience of another carrier.

CASE STUDIES

1. A dentist office is located in Birmingham, AL; has 10 employees; and only flies to a couple conferences a year.

The dentist office isn’t located near a hub or focus city. Given the infrequent travel, the office should only be concerned with the cheapest and/or most convenient flights. Southwest flies to Birmingham nonstop from most of its hubs, meaning the employees can fly anywhere in the country nonstop or with one stop. Given the ability to rebook Southwest flights for no charge if the price drops (plus the free baggage allowance), I’d recommend the office protect the business’ bottom line and fly this carrier.

2. A consulting firm in Chicago has 30 employees, most of whom fly to client meetings across the country on a weekly basis.

The consulting firm faces a tough decision because Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) is supported by both American and United with hundreds of nonstop flights a day. Because the firm flies all over the country and on a regular basis, it should decide on American or United and sign up for the respective airline small business program (American Business Extra or United PerksPlus) to maximize every dollar employees spend on flights. The decision between the two airlines could come down to employee preference or a quick study of which airfares are usually cheaper for the firm’s most common routes.

3. An angel investor lives in New York but flies to LAX twice a month for meetings.

The angel investor perhaps faces the most difficult decision of the bunch, given all the airlines offering transcon service from New York to LAX. If this route makes up the significant majority of the investor’s travel, I’d recommend JetBlue because of the top-notch Mint product it flies and the reasonable fares compared to the legacy carriers’ premium offerings. The traveler will also have access to JetBlue’s ever-expanding route network in case he/she needs to travel elsewhere and can utilize the points and Mosaic status earned.

COMPOUND YOUR BUSINESS TRAVEL EARNINGS

In addition to earning miles for your paid flights, you should sign up for and utilize the small business loyalty programs that most legacy US carriers operate. If your business has multiple travelers linked to your account, you can quickly rack up points which have their own — often lucrative — award charts.

You should also ensure you and your employees are using the right credit card to earn miles or points that can be redeemed with airline of your choice. For instance, if you’re loyal to any of the American Express Membership Rewards transfer partners such as Delta or JetBlue, you might want to consider the Platinum Card from American Express, which now earns 5 points per dollar on airfare purchased directly from the airline. Ideally, you’ll want to pair this card with the Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN, which gets you 2 cents per point in value when redeeming for paid airfare.

Meanwhile, if you prefer to earn points that you can redeem for award travel with United or Southwest, I recommend putting all airfare purchases on the Chase Sapphire Reserve to earn 3 points per dollar on all travel purchases. Co-branded cards like the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express and the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard can also quickly compound your earnings when buying airfare.

Bottom Line

Because personal preference plays a significant role, there’s never going to be a clear-cut answer when deciding on an airline for your business travel. However, once you determine if cost is the only factor that matters to your company or your employer, you should be able to narrow down your choices to a handful of carriers based on your geographic location. Remember not to worry too much about elite status or benefits unless you’re truly a frequent flyer; given today’s revenue-based airline loyalty programs, you won’t receive much in the way of redeemable miles or special treatment unless you’re a really big spender.

How do you decide which airline to fly for business travel?

Featured image courtesy of Morsa Images via Getty. 

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