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Newest Airline Ratings Really Make You Wonder

This year's Skytrax Top Airline award list is a mixture of the "usual suspects" and the inexplicable. Of all the airline surveys published around the world, Skytrax can lay claim to the largest database and a reasonably rigorous methodology, so its results command a lot of worldwide attention. This year, many of the results announced at the Farnborough International Air Show conform to previous patterns, as expected, but a few are truly perplexing.

The most predictable results are for the world's top 10 lines, and all are based in Asia or the Middle East. From the top down, they're Qatar, Asiana, Singapore, Cathay Pacific, ANA, Etihad, Turkish, Emirates, Thai, and Malaysia. And even the next 10 are mostly Eastern Hemisphere (Garuda, Virgin Australia, EVA, Qantas, Korean, Hainan and Air New Zealand) with just two European lines, Lufthansa and its subsidiary Swiss. Air Canada, at number 19, is the lone North American representative. The only U.S. line to make even the third 10 is Virgin America, at 26; Alaska is the top U.S. network airline at 49, and the top giant line is Delta, 57.

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Skytrax undoubtedly uses the largest sample of any airline survey. According to the site, the survey included "more than 18 million airline customers from over 100 different nationalities" and it "covered over 200 airlines," measuring "38 key performance indicators" from check-in to boarding, onboard seat comfort, cabin cleanliness, food, beverages, in-flight entertainment, and staff service." Clearly, Skytrax is nothing if not thorough.

And those Skytrax top-10 lists generally agree with other big surveys. Although all the big airlines fly mainly the same kinds of planes, survey respondents everywhere seem to like the way the Asian, Middle Eastern and Pacific lines do it.

My take on this survey, however, is that the Skytrax sample vastly oversamples business-class travelers, for whom those Eastern and Pacific lines really pour on the service and the extras. I flew Asiana and Turkish on my recent round-the-world frequent flyer, business-class blowout, and they certainly did an excellent job. On the other hand, I wouldn't rank them substantially above United (number 64) or Air China. 

Skytrax, however, doesn't concentrate solely on business class. It also publishes separate results for economy class, and the top-10 list for economy closely resembles the overall list: Singapore, Qatar, Asiana, Garuda, ANA, Malaysia, Thai, and Cathay Pacific are the top nine, with Virgin America coming in at number 10.

It also publishes scores for premium economy: Qantas, Turkish, Air New Zealand, British Airways, EVA, Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic, Japan, and Air France. I can't argue, especially given that only a few other airlines even offer a genuine premium-economy option.

Virgin America also scores well in the Skytrax breakout for domestic flights on North American lines (at number one) but my reaction to this list is, "What were the respondents smoking?" The list runs this way: Virgin America, WestJet, Alaska, Southwest, JetBlue, American Eagle, Porter, Frontier, Volaris, and Spirit. OK, I get that folks like Virgin America's cabin decor, in-flight entertainment, and Branson's unique hype, but JetBlue provides a measurably better product. And American Eagle at number 6? Give me a break: That line consistently places in the lower half of the annual DOT consumer scores for complaints, delayed arrivals, and canceled flights among all reporting U.S. carriers. As for Spirit in the top 10, that's really weird. Even if there were 50 airlines in the U.S, most travelers wouldn't include Spirit in the top 49: Its product is lousy, and it's notorious for the number and cost of the fees it piles on top of its supposedly "low" fares.

In the final analysis, then, these scores provide little guidance when you're selecting an airline. For almost all of you, I'm pretty sure that the fare, the schedule, and frequent-flyer considerations trump Skytrax or any other airline ranking. But, if nothing else, they're fun to read.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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