Best Airlines by Traveler Test

AskEd & AnswerEd
by , SmarterTravel Staff
Carl Unger Headshot
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 23, 2009. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, Air New Zealand, Alaska Airlines, American, ANA, AskEd & AnswerEd, Carl Unger, Continental, Delta, Emirates, Japan Air, JetBlue, low-cost airline, Lufthansa, Northwest, Singapore Airlines, Southwest, SWISS, Thai Airways, United, US Airways, Virgin America, WestJet.

Last week's AskEd and AnswerEd examined the question of "best" airlines from the standpoint of measurable attributes—performance, seat space, and such. But air travel, as a personal experience, is also influenced by subjective responses. And those subjective responses to airline flights can be—and frequently are—surveyed. A reader, reacting to the just-announced airline rankings by Conde Nast Traveler, asked:

"Do those survey results track with the quality ratings you just reviewed?"

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The short answer is "Somewhat, in that JetBlue scored well both ways and the smaller lines, such as Alaska and Frontier, tend to outscore the bigger lines." Agreement wouldn't be surprising, in that even in opinion surveys travelers tend to rate performance highly. Nevertheless, subjective ratings take into account comfort, staff, in-flight entertainment, and such, that the performance-based systems don't measure at all.

Overall Winners: "Round Up the Usual Suspects"

For worldwide honors in most surveys, the results are typically "Round up the usual suspects." Although the precise order may vary a bit, you almost always find Singapore and Cathay Pacific vying for the top of the group, with Asiana, Emirates, Malaysia, and Thai also scoring well.

Among airlines based in North America, recent startups or small lines tend to dominate the field. Typically, some combination of Frontier, JetBlue, Midwest, and Virgin America usually top the survey-derived lists. Among the legacy lines, Continental seems to be emerging as top scorer, with Alaska and Hawaiian often in the running. The other big lines tend to cluster in the middle, scoring well below most comparable lines based in Europe as well as Asia. And small U.S. regional lines fare poorly—not surprising, given that they also rank at the bottom in the performance-based scores.

Here is a rundown of some of the more prominent survey-based airline rankings. In all cases, I list rankings from the top down, with numerical scores where available:

Skytrax

Easily the most comprehensive, this London-based site assigns one to five composite "star" ratings to almost 300 airlines, obviously including many you'll never even think of flying. Ratings are based on a combination of "more than 800 different areas of product and service delivery for each airline," including expert input, statistical data, and traveler reviews:

  • Only six lines currently enjoy five stars (in alphabetical order): Asiana, Cathay Pacific, Kingfisher, Malaysia, Qatar, and Singapore.
  • Skytrax gives four stars to 29 lines. North American lines earning this relatively high status are Frontier, JetBlue, Midwest, and Porter. Others in this group include most of the top European and Asian lines.
  • Most of the rest of the world's lines that you'd recognize get three stars, including all the rest of the lines based in the U.S. and Canada.
  • Two-star lines are generally smaller and relatively unknown. A few well known names, however, get this low rating, notably Ryanair. Only one airline—North Korea's Air Koryo—managed only one star.

Although the featured star ratings do not distinguish by class or flight length, each airline's detailed review does include separate ratings for business and economy class and for long haul and short haul flights. Along with the star ratings, you can also access reviews submitted by individual travelers. Overall, I give Skytrax a nod as the best worldwide rating site for its comprehensive and detailed coverage.

Conde Nast Traveler

This annual ranking, expressed as composite scores for various factors, is based on responses from readers. Top-10 worldwide lines are Singapore Airlines (89.6), Emirates (79.3), Cathay Pacific (77.3), Virgin Atlantic (77.3), Etihad (76.4), Air New Zealand (72.9), JAL (72.7), Korean (71.6), ANA (71.1), and Thai (71).

Top North American lines are Virgin America (78), JetBlue (63.7), Midwest (62.3), WestJet (56.5), Frontier (46), Alaska (45), Continental (41.7), USA 3000 (41.4), ExpressJet (no longer flying), and Southwest (38).

All in all, these rankings seem to me to be mostly a popularity contest, but the source is clearly important enough in travel markets that you need to take notice.

Flight Memory

This site, based in Germany, assigns star ratings to 20 airlines worldwide, broken out into long distance, middle distance, and short distance groups (not all lines are in each group), as well as by class. Ratings are based on close to 100,000 individual travel contributions. The two top winners in each group are Singapore and Emirates for long haul, Continental and Lufthansa for medium distance, and Swiss and Lufthansa for short haul.

JDPower

JD Power, which rates just about anything you can buy, assigns ratings to eight lines based in North America. Alaska and Continental shared top five-level scores for overall satisfaction, followed by Delta at four; Air Canada, American, and Northwest (now part of Delta) at three, and United and US Airways at two. (JD Power generally does not reveal lowest scorers.) Separate rankings are shown for reservation, check-in, boarding/deplane, aircraft, flight crew, in-flight services, and costs and fees. Although Power does not score by class or distance, its results are useful for the limited lines it covers.

The Rest

A few other sites offer some additional information, but they're of less use than the big ones.

  • Air Valid—apparently based in France—is very much an ambitious work in progress. Although it lists several hundred lines as "reviewed," it shows actual scores for fewer than 100. Each airline gets numeric scores on a scale of 0 to 20, with separate components for six "feeling of security" factors and six for "feeling of comfort." Overall, the site is cumbersome to use and less helpful than it might be.
  • Traveltruth rates the "major" international airlines—actually just 16 of them—and the letter grades are obviously based entirely on business class. Top A+ grades are for Singapore and Virgin Atlantic, with the big U.S. lines all earning a "gentlemen's C."
  • AirGuide posts a lot of detailed information on about 100 lines that looks great—until you see that the results are based on a survey from 2003.

Methodological Deficiencies Bias Results

Survey derived rankings can suffer from three methodological deficiencies that significantly skew the results:

  • Most worldwide surveys do not separate responses or publish results separately for economy, business, and first classes, and the survey results appear to be heavily biased by disproportionate responses from travelers in business class. Unless you've never flown before, you already recognize a world of difference between business class and economy: You know that many airlines—in my view, most lines—manage to offer a really good business class and a really lousy economy class on the same plane. So if, like most, you buy the cheapest tickets you can find, an airline rating based in part on the business class wine list is totally irrelevant. The result of this bias is that airlines offering pedestrian or even below-average economy products, including British Airways, Qantas, and Air France, score well, overall, because of the strength of their business class products.
  • Some worldwide surveys do not separate responses or publish results separately for short-haul and long-haul flights or for domestic and international flights. We all recognize that most airlines provide better service on their long-haul routes than on short legs, and that they generally do better on international flights than they do on domestic trips. This bias works against U.S. carriers, because a much higher percentage of survey responses are from domestic and/or short-haul travelers than is the case for lines with a high percentage of transatlantic and transpacific flights.
  • No survey results of which I am aware show scores for different airplane types, yet most of us find that, by and large, travel on the newer 777s, 737NGs, A320s, A330s, and A340s is a generally superior experience to traveling on older planes

Given these facts, it comes as no surprise that the big U.S. airlines score so poorly. Still, most of them do offer a really lousy product these days in the "main" coach cabin.

 
 
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