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TripAdvisor, the giant hotel-rating site and sister site of SmarterTravel, has added airline ratings to its online offerings. Now, when you use TripAdvisor to find flights, the search system automatically provides consumer-generated ratings for each airline option on your itinerary. If you just want to check on ratings, however, you have to work a little harder.
TripAdvisor's ratings are based on reports from real travelers that reflect their actual flight experiences, just as its hotel ratings are based on reports from folks who stayed there:
- Participants who volunteer to rate their air trips give a separate rating for eight factors: Value, Check-in experience, Punctuality, Baggage handling, Seat comfort, In-flight service, In-flight amenities, and Reasonableness of fees, on a scale of one to five "bubbles."
- TripAdvisor compiles a composite score for each line, but you can also see the average rating for each factor separately.
- To get to the airline ratings, you have to enter a specific trip. The search system then displays all of the available itineraries, along with a sidebar showing each airline on the itinerary, its lowest fare, its composite rating, and a link for "detailed ratings" that displays scores for each of the eight factors.
- Individual itineraries also include links to the seating chart for each airplane, through SeatGuru.
If you're just interested in looking at the ratings, you have to start by entering a trip—it doesn't matter where—and checking on the rating for any airline that is displayed. Once you get there, you can click on a "see all airlines" link, then click once more on "see entire list." Whew! Presumably, at some point, TripAdvisor will make the overall list a bit more easily accessible.
For those of you who are interested, among the lines with 50 or more reader responses, here are current rankings, expressed as percentages of posters giving overall "recommended" scores:
- North American airlines: Southwest 98, JetBlue 97, Alaska 91, AirTran 88, Continental 87, Delta 76, American 74, United 71, and US Airways 66. No real surprises.
- Other airlines: Emirates 91, Jet2 90, Virgin Atlantic 87, EasyJet 84, British Airways 79, Monarch 71, Ryanair 70, Thomson 70, FlyThomasCook 56. Familiar names at the top; surprisingly high score for EasyJet, and understandably low scores for the big European charter lines.
Overall, I find user-generated data helpful as representing how real travelers react to their experiences. I have one quibble with TripAdvisor (and several similar sites), however: Posted ratings do not differentiate experiences in economy class from those in a premium class. Overall, I've found that the world's worst business class is far better than the world's best economy class, so differences in response rates by class can badly distort figures. TripAdvisor has the capability to disaggregate responses by class, which I hope it will do as soon as it develops large enough sampler sizes.
Given TripAdvisor's dominant position in hotel rankings, it immediately becomes a key go-to source for user-generated airline rankings. Right now, Skytrax is probably the world's largest such compilation, but TripAdvisor will quickly challenge it, at least for North American travelers.
Other survey-derived rankings are available from a wide variety of proprietary sources, including major travel publications, but anyone can post to TripAdvisor and Skytrax and view the results.
Of course, some experts prefer rankings based on objective criteria. The leading source of those rankings for the larger U.S. airlines is the annual Airline Quality Ratings (AQR) from Wichita State and Purdue universities. These scores reflect a composite of what can go wrong with an airline: lost baggage, delays, bumpings, and complaints to the Department of Transportation.
AQR results for 2010 will be issued in April. Meanwhile, Scott McCartney, the Wall Street Journal's outstanding columnist ("The Middle Seat"), has already compiled and published similar data for 2010. As with last year's AQR scores, such smaller lines as Alaska and AirTran did well and the biggies—American, Continental, Delta, and United—scored poorly.
All in all, TripAdvisor's ratings are a welcome new resource. Take a look.