Purpose Fierce competition in the airline industry compels airline companies to offer various services. Yet, while companies strive to become preferable, customers confront numerous airline selection indicators, and as such causes vagueness in human thinking that needs to be systematically and normatively resolved. Accordingly, the purpose of this paper is initially to establish a strategic decision model that incorporates key selection indicators, among hundreds of criteria, through a systematic approach. Subsequently, it also aims to investigate the relative importance of these indicators for passengers. Design/methodology/approach This research first utilises a comprehensive literature review to uncover key indicators used in airline selection. Afterwards, the outcome obtained from the first phase initiated the phase of determining the prioritisation of these key selection indicators, through the analytic hierarchy process (AHP) method, based on passengers' judgments. Findings The outcome of structuring a strategic decision model reveals 32 key selection indicators to be mainly considered by passengers and these indicators are grouped under five dimensions in this paper. Then, the prioritisation results given by the AHP indicate that "price-related factors" and "customer satisfaction-related factors", respectively, are more important dimensions for passengers while selecting the best airline company. Originality/value The proposed approach provides a novel way to identify and prioritise key airline selection indicators for different passengers, through using the AHP, as a response to the need of adopting a systematic and comprehensive manner with the inclusion of general industry norms. Within this scope, the established model and the prioritisation results can be used as a reference by both airline passengers during their decision-making processes and airline companies which aim for becoming more competitive.