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The 5 most hated and liked U.S. airlines

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Complaining about flying is an American pastime, thanks to cramped seats and fees for everything from checking baggage to changing an airline ticket.

That helps explain why airlines have consistently ranked as one of the lowest-scoring industries with the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, an independent national benchmark of consumer experiences of products and services sold to U.S. consumers.

Yet there's some hope on the horizon, the ACSI has found in its latest ranking of airlines. American travelers are feeling better about flying, thanks to fares that have dropped because of lower fuel prices and some efforts on the part of airlines to improve customer service, the study found. Customer satisfaction with airlines has increased 4.3 percent, matching the industry's peak in 1994.

"Airlines have always been one of the lowest-scoring industries in the ACSI because the in-flight experience was miserable," Claes Fornell, ACSI founder and chairman, said in a statement. "Historically, people were generally happy before they got on the plane. Now, that is changing. New planes, more options for in-flight entertainment, and the return of free snacks have resulted in higher passenger satisfaction."

Still, there are some airlines that Americans love to hate. It may be no surprise that many of those are carriers that target the budget-minded. Even so, a few of the worst-scoring airlines climbed in this year's survey, thanks to the perception of better value.

The biggest pet peeve for American travelers is seating. Seat comfort remains the the lowest-rated aspect of flying, followed by in-flight services such as food and movies.

The best part of flying is the ease of the check-in process, the survey found.

Read on to learn about the 5 most hated and most liked airlines.

5th worst: Delta

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Delta's customer service ranking is unchanged from a year ago, according to the survey. That puts it at the middle of the pack with a 71 rating in customer satisfaction, compared with 72 for the airline industry as a whole.

One reason why Delta may not be seeing a bump in customer satisfaction? Its percentage of delayed or canceled flights more than doubled from 2012 to 2014, a report from a hospitality employee group found last year.

4th worst: United

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United enjoyed a big jump in customer satisfaction ratings from a year earlier, rising 13 percent to 68 points in 2016. Still, that means that the airline is still underperforming, given that the industry average is 72 points.

The bump in customer satisfaction may be a reflection of the airline's decision to reinstate free snacks in economy class, the ACSI said.

3rd worst: Frontier

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Like United, Frontier is scoring better these days, although it's still below the industry average. Frontier's customer service rating rose 14 percent to 66 in this year's rankings.

One aspect that seems to bug customers are Frontier's fees. While it's billed as a low-cost airline, consumers complain that its fees can add up quickly, according to reviews on Airfarewatchdog. On top of that, Frontier charges for seat assignments. Without that, travelers are assigned to seats at check-in and can be separated from their co-travelers.

2nd worst: Allegiant

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Unlike many other airlines in this year's survey, Allegiant didn't improve in its customer service rating, remaining unchanged at 65. That's below the industry average of 72 in the ACSI's rating system.

While Allegiant offers low-cost fares, it also tacks on fees for everything from priority access while boarding to calling their call center for purchasing tickets.

The most disliked: Spirit Airlines

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Another no-frills airline, Spirit is hands-down the loser when it comes to customer satisfaction. It may be a title that Spirit holds up high, given that it ran a competition in 2014 called the "State of the Hate" report, which offered 8,000 frequent flyer miles to people who wrote in about what they hated about Spirit or any other airline.

Still, even though it remains at the bottom of the barrel, Spirit has climbed up from last year's score of 54. This year, Spirit jumped 15 percent to a 62 rating in the ACSI report.

Even with the improvement, Spirit "remains among the lowest-scoring companies in the ACSI," the survey said. As in, across all companies and industries.

5th best: American

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American Airlines edged ahead of Delta with a score of 72 points, or an increase of 9 percent from a year earlier.

"Remarkably, American seems to have avoided major snafus with integrating US Airways operations after their merger," the ACSI noted.

4th best: All others

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This grouping includes smaller airlines including Virgin American, Hawaiian Airlines and some international airlines such as Lufthansa, according to the ACSI. The average score for the group was 74, or slightly ahead of the industry average of 72.

3rd best: Alaska Airlines

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This carrier jumped 3 percent to score 77 in the ACSI's 2016 report. The airline "leads the pack," The Wall Street Journal said in its January ranking of U.S. airlines.

Alaska has big ambitions: it's in the process of acquiring Virgin America, another highly ranked airline. The combination will expand Alaska's business in California and allow it to compete with bigger carriers.

The most-liked airline (tie): Southwest Airlines

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This carrier has something of a cult following, landing it on lists of top-rated brands with the likes of Apple and Amazon.com.

The airline scored 80 points in the ACSI's report, an increase of 3 percent.

"Southwest has its highest ACSI score since 2013, appearing to have overcome the operational bumps encountered in the first few years after the acquisition of AirTran," the ACSI said.

The reasons why travelers like Southwest so much include two free checked bags, low-cost priority check-ins, and an entertainment system that links through your device, such as an iPhone or tablet, according to Airfarewatchdog.

The most-liked airline (tie): JetBlue

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Once again, JetBlue is at the top of the list, although this year it's sharing the spot with Southwest Airlines. JetBlue slipped 1 percent to 80 points from 81 points a year ago, which could be related to its decision to start charging a baggage fee in economy class.

Yet fans still like the company's service, as well as its in-flight TV service and snacks, as well as its reasonable fares. Still, with Southwest creeping up, JetBlue may need to up its game to keep its crown.