Every once in a while, one organization or another will rate the airlines. Sometimes, it seems like the same story over and over. Often enough, it's Southwest Airlines topping the list within the U.S. -- although as I wrote earlier, there was a recent crack in that armor.

Now, there's a new study out ranking 72 of the top airlines all over the world, and I think a lot of passengers will be truly surprised at what U.S. airline ranked tops in North America, and second in the entire world.

That airline is American Airlines. I think that may be a bit of a surprise some passengers. My colleague Chris Matyszczyk recently reported on American as the airline whose own senior vice president of sales, marketing and loyalty believes it has no brand purpose.

But let's set that aside, and focus on the study. It comes from AirHelp, a company that specializes in helping airline passengers whose flights are delayed in Europe get compensation under a European Union regulation called EC 261. We're talking $700 here.

(Quick aside: I'm a bit of an evangelist on this, because I learned of the existence of EC 261 literally one day after the three-year statute of limitations expired for a badly delayed flight my wife and I were on from Rome. In short, you should read this so you don't make my bad mistake.)

Anyway, given AirHelp's business, the three criteria it used to judge airlines make sense. They include:

  • On-time performance (33.33 percent). "We count any flight that departed within 15 minutes of its published departure time, and arrived within 15 minutes of its published arrival time as an on-time flight."
  • Service quality (33.33 percent). "[W]e ran hundreds of surveys where we asked over 40 thousand people in more than 40 countries for their opinions."
  • Claim processing (33.33 percent). "We have unique insight into this with our own data on how well airlines process their customers' claims for compensation."

Using those criteria, here's how the airlines ranked:

  1. Qatar Airways
  2. American Airlines
  3. Aeromexico
  4. SAS Scandinavian Airlines
  5. Qantas
  6. LATAM Airlines
  7. WestJet
  8. Luxair
  9. Austrian Airlines
  10. Emirates

United came in 16th, and Delta was 17th. Southwest wasn't on the list at all; I'm assuming it would have been difficult to include them because AirHelp is focused on the European regulation, and Southwest doesn't fly to Europe.

Now, if I were a more cynical person, I might stop to scratch my head over the fact that these rankings basically seem to order airlines by how likely they are to wind up paying claims to AirHelp's customers.

I might also note that given the third criteria, an airline has to have had done enough things to cause customers to have claims in the first place -- if you want to rank them by how quickly and easily they pony up.

But no matter. I'd rather just let American Airlines bask in the glory of its fine showing: Second in the world, and at the top of a pile of airlines that "put customers first [and] come out ahead," as AirHelp put it in a press release.

Sure enough, when I asked American for comment, they took a little pride in their achievements:

"We are proud of our 130,000 team members who ensure the safe transportation of more than 500,000 customers each day," the company said. "In 2019, running the safest and most reliable operation in our history is one of our top focus areas, as we continue to improve and modernize the customer experience."

Nice job, American. Now maybe let's work on that brand purpose thing.