The world is huge

Don't miss any of it

Travel news, itineraries, and inspiration delivered straight to your inbox.

By proceeding, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.


Which Airline Ratings Do You Trust?

Want to receive stories like this every day? Subscribe to our free Deal Alert newsletter.

“Everybody’s a critic!” The old cliche applies to all sorts of goods and services, and airlines certainly aren’t exempt. So when you’re trying to figure out which line you might want to fly, you can look to all sorts of different rating and ranking sources. These sources generally fall into four groups: experience reports by ordinary travelers, experience reports from frequent “road warrior” travelers, evaluations from professional travel writers, and objective measures. The results can vary considerably—and proponents of any one approach may take potshots at the others. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}

Two weeks ago I did a report on the new airline ratings from TripAdvisor, a sister site of SmarterTravel, based on large numbers of reports submitted by ordinary travelers. My column drew a challenge from an industry expert, who noted what he called “glaring discrepancies” in TripAdvisor ratings. He cited, for example, that TripAdvisor scored some lines with a measly 31- to 32-inch economy class seat pitch higher for seat comfort than lines offering 34- to 35-inch pitch.

Clearly, any experience-based reports are always subject to the question of respondents’ standards of reference:

  • An occasional leisure traveler whose public transport exposure is usually confined to the IRT or Red Line at commute times might well give four or even five stars to a tight economy-class seat. Some of these folks are undoubtedly the source of the all-too-common “comfortable” ratings for cattle car cabins with ultra-narrow 737-size seats at 31-inch pitch.
  • A frequent business traveler who often travels in a premium class, on the other hand, would likely rate that same seat at no more than two stars; more likely only one.
  • In my experience with survey results, I’ve found that travelers anticipating a great vacation—on their way to Disney World, Cancun, or Venice, for example—often give higher ratings to an airline than the line’s product warrants. On the other hand, a salesman returning from losing a big account might well under-rate an airline.

On seat comfort, I would have to agree with my critic: It’s hard to see how anyone could rate an economy seat at 31- to 32-inch pitch as “comfortable.” In fact, with the possible exception of JetBlue and flights in some 777s and the big Embraers, “comfortable economy seat” is an oxymoron. On the other hand, experiences by ordinary travelers are probably as good a guide as any on the questions of in-flight service.

If you’re unsure of the value of consumer-based reviews, you have several sources for reviews prepared by experts of one stripe of another. I’ve regularly recommended ratings from Skytrax as among the most comprehensive available. They’re based on reports submitted by in-house audit associates.

Magazines and websites focused on business travel regularly post first-hand evaluations by writers and reporters. However, in my experience, their flight evaluations concentrate mainly on premium classes and their reviews often zone in on trivialities such as the brand of amenities in the lavatory or the wine list. Survey-based results in the slick upscale travel magazines probably suffer from the same skew toward premium-class travel.

So where does that leave us? If you want ratings from ordinary consumers, TripAdvisor is probably the top choice. And if you want ratings from experts, Skytrax is likely to be your best option.

For a completely different take based on objective measures, the annual AQR/airline quality ratings of the biggest U.S. lines are certainly objective, but they reflect only what can go wrong with an air trip: lost baggage, delays, bumpings, and complaints to the Department of Transportation. They have nothing to say about seat comfort, onboard service, or any of the other factors so important to the total flight experience. And you can find objective seat measurements on sites such as SeatGuru (a sister site of SmarterTravel), Seat Maestro, or Seat Plans, but nothing else.

Clearly, no source has a lock on accuracy, reliability, or utility. Fortunately, as consumers, you don’t have to choose. Instead, you can look at all the sources, and come to your own rating conclusions.

We hand-pick everything we recommend and select items through testing and reviews. Some products are sent to us free of charge with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not accept compensation to review products. All items are in stock and prices are accurate at the time of publication. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

Top Fares From