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Virgin America gets top marks from Consumer Reports

In an era where fliers complain air travel can feel like riding a city bus in the sky, Virgin America soared above the competition in Consumer Reports' airline rankings released Wednesday. “Virgin America is a cut above the rest,” Consumer Reportssenior editor Amanda Walker told NBC News. “People were very happy with their flights on Virgin.”In fact, the airline received some of the highes

In an era where fliers complain air travel can feel like riding a city bus in the sky, Virgin America soared above the competition in Consumer Reports' airline rankings released Wednesday.

“Virgin America is a cut above the rest,” Consumer Reportssenior editor Amanda Walker told NBC News. “People were very happy with their flights on Virgin.”

In fact, the airline received some of the highest satisfaction scores the magazine has seen in years.

Survey respondents said they liked the check-in, flight attendants, the in-flight entertainment options, cabin cleanliness and seat comfort. One reader even said the leather seat cushions are so nice, there’s no reason to fly first class. Virgin was also the only airline to get top marks for baggage handling.

Southwest Airlines and JetBlue tied for second place. Notably, they’re the only carriers on the list that let you check any bags for free.

Both airlines received high marks for cabin crew service and ease of check-in, but JetBlue scored higher for cabin cleanliness and seating comfort. Consumer Reports notes that JetBlue provides a bit more leg room than most other carriers.

The magazine’s ratings of 11 airlines are based on a survey of 16,663 subscribers conducted in February 2013. These passengers had flown a combined total of more than 31,000 domestic flights

“A full third of the survey respondents complained about crowded flights and a quarter complained about cramped seats,” Consumer Reports survey research associate Karen Jaffe said.

Hawaiian, Alaska, Frontier and Delta came out in the middle of the pack, followed by US Airways, American, and United.

No-frills Spirit Airlines finished last, with rock-bottom scores in every category. While Virgin America scored 89 points out of 100, Spirit had just 50. Consumer Reports called it “one of the lowest overall scores for any company we’ve ever rated.”

'Somebody always had their hand out'
Spirit's ultra-low prices only get you just a seat on the plane. Everything else is an extra fee, including booking a flight, reserving a seat, checking bags or bringing luggage on the plane. There’s even a charge for a soft drink or juice.

“People said they felt like somebody always had their hand out,” Walker noted. “Every time they turned around they were getting dinged for something else.”

The airlines know passengers are frustrated with fees, especially unexpected ones. Some carriers are trying to deal with this by bundling a number of services for one price. An "upgrade package" might include preferred seating, early boarding, one checked bag and a free flight change. Consumer Reports reminds travelers to make sure you’ll use all of those benefits, otherwise it might be cheaper to pay for the ones you want.

A few other survey highlights:

  • Alaska Airlines got high marks for check-in, cabin staff and baggage handling, but passengers were not so happy with the seats and entertainment options.
  • Hawaiian Airlines scored points for check-in, cleanliness and cabin service, but was rated below average for onboard entertainment.
  • Delta and Frontier did well on ease of check-in.
  • Delta got low marks for seating comfort.
  • American, United and US Airways got the lowest rating possible for cabin cleanliness, seating comfort and in-flight entertainment.

“The bottom line: When it comes to your satisfaction, it does matter which airline you choose,” Walker said.

The full "Best and Worst Airlines" reportcan be found online at ConsumerReports.org and in the July 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Herb Weisbaum is "The ConsumerMan." Follow him on Facebook and Twitteror visit The ConsumerMan website.