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Why the Latest Skytrax Airline Survey Results Are Off Base

Emirates is the world's best airline, according to the latest airline survey from Skytrax. As we reported earlier, nine of the top 10 airlines and 16 of the top 20 are based in Asia, the Middle East, and the Pacific. Air Canada, at number 20, is the lone North American airline in the group.

Overall, these lists follow previous Skytrax rankings. But, in the details, some of the results are pretty weird.

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Emirates, at number one, is a perennial top finisher in Skytrax as well as many other rankings. And Emirates ranks number eight in the "best economy class" summary. But a few months back, Skytrax announced that it would not give a top "five star" rating to any airline with ultra-tight 10-across economy seating in 777s; yet Emirates inflicts this indignity on its economy passengers. Go figure.

The "best transpacific" group shows some strange results, too. The top five are, in order, Cathay Pacific, Asiana, ANA, Korean, and Qantas, even though ANA and Asiana rank ahead of Cathay in the top 20 list and Qantas ranks ahead of Korean. Even stranger, Singapore, number three overall, doesn't make the top five transpacific group at all. At least the winners in the "best transatlantic" category are consistent with the worldwide list, with Lufthansa and Swiss at the top, followed by British Airways, KLM, and Air France.

The "best premium economy" list is a bit more eclectic, and also fairly reasonable, with Air New Zealand, Qantas, Turkish (which is removing its premium-economy cabin), British Airways, ANA, JAL, Virgin Australia, Cathay, Air France, and Virgin Atlantic, respectively.

But the new category of "best low-cost premium cabin" includes only AirAsia X, Virgin America, and Scoot. However, given that the Virgin America product is really a semi-premium economy class (same narrow seats as regular economy) and fares are about three times regular economy prices, it doesn't quite fit.

The "best North America" results are also odd. The top 10 are, in rank order, Air Canada, Virgin America, Delta, JetBlue, United, Alaska, WestJet, Southwest, Hawaiian, and Air Transat. I've consistently held that JetBlue provides a better economy service than Virgin America, though I concede that the Branson flair gives Virgin a lot of support. But Delta above JetBlue? Ridiculous. United, a perennial bottom feeder in most surveys, above frequent favorite Alaska? Also ridiculous. And AirTransat, with its cattle-car A310s and 330-200s, on the list—but not American and US Airways? Another ridiculous result.

Also strange: JetBlue and Alaska get in on the "regional airlines" lists, despite the fact that both are much larger than Virgin America, which doesn't make it. The "low cost North America" list includes Virgin America but not JetBlue, and it also includes the "airline you love to hate," Spirit, which most people would rank below any other airline they could name.

Because they're based on a large sample—and Skytrax is good at promoting them—these annual ratings generate a lot of ink and pixels. But I'm convinced that they're heavily biased toward responses from travelers in business class and travelers based in Europe. All in all, they're a good read, but as a buying guide—not so much.

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