Ranking the Best Airlines in the World

ABCNews.com ran a piece on why there are no North American or European airlines amongst the Skytrax top 10 in quality.

Skytrax acknowledges progress in US and European ‘hard product’ such as seats and entertainment. Indeed, United’s new business class seats (installed fleet-wide on 767 and 747 aircraft and just beginning to roll out on their 777s) are very good. And British Airways has set a world standard for business class seats for many years. Air Canada has some outstanding seats, similar to the Air New Zealand (which makes the list) and Virgin (which does not) offerings. The new Swiss business class looks pretty great, though I haven’t tried it. Of course, American’s business seats and Air France’s are in my opinion quite awful and neither has a solid plan for replacement.

But the piece lays out some of the niceties offered by Asian and Middle Eastern carriers (and Air New Zealand, which unmentioned in the piece can help even coach passengers inflight with planning their activities in New Zealand).

Then it speculates on the differences — the things North American and European carriers lack, and why.

On differences in service:

Thai Airways first class passengers have a private check-in lounge, are escorted through private immigration, taken by golf cart to the lounge and then escorted later to their plane.

“It is truly someone else’s problem to worry. You don’t even know what gate you are leaving out of,” Leff said. “Their whole purpose is to make sure you are taken care of.”

Elite passengers here do get to skip a few lines but generally, Leff said, “you watch the departure board and show up at the boarding gate and fight the masses onto the plane.”

Now in fairness, not all Asian carriers are great on the ground. Singapore and Cathay, for all their in-flight excellence, are rather mediocre even at their home airports. And Lufthansa in Germany has them beat at the airport, though certainly not inflight.

But why the overall differences?

A lot of the differences have to do with the intangible pleasantries that come with good service. Overseas, emphasis is placed on exceptional service.

Compare that to the United States, where “the flight attendants are here primarily for your safety,” said Gary Leff, who writes the View from the Wing blog.

I told the author of the piece I didn’t really want to wade into the whys and wherefores behind this, so he got AirfareWatchdog’s George Hobica to do it instead…

For instance, British Airways — currently dealing with a strike by its cabin staff — pays flight attendants two to three times what Singapore Airlines does, according to Skytrax’s Plaisted. At those rates, you can hire a larger to staff to ensure that check-in lines are short and passengers get prompt drink refills.

“Ever see a 60-year-old flight attendant on Singapore Airlines?” said George Hobica, president of airfarewatchdog.com. “Asian airlines aren’t restricted by fair hiring laws; they can pay staff less — especially younger staff, and younger workers take fewer sick days. U.S. airlines are saddled with paying for their employees’ health insurance plans; not so in most Asian countries.”

I was sorta waiting for the payoff here — though certainly not the exclusive reason for the differences, unions and how they feed into corporate culture certainly do matter. There are plenty of great crews in the US, I’ve certainly had them with United (and Alaska..), but in most cases it’s a result of individual flight attendants taking pride in what they’re offering. And those that don’t really see downside for lack of effort.

All the meta-discussions aside, the actual Skytrax list is a bit silly. Ranking Asiana as best in the world is odd. Their service is very very good in my experience (though speaking personally I’m at times frustrated by the lack of English skills of some of their flight attendants). But their seat while good certainly isn’t great. The food and entertainment are top notch, though selection doesn’t compare in either case to the best of the best. And while I find their first class lounge in Seoul an oasis, it doesn’t compare to Thai’s ground service in Bangkok (or even really in Hong Kong) or Lufthansa’s in Germany.

I think ANA deserves to be on the list, ahead of Thai and Malaysia. And while Qantas is a good carrier I’m not sure it’s great. I’m also surprised not to see a Kingfisher or Jet on here.

Still, the airlines making the list are all ones I’d choose to fly over carriers offering flight attendants primarily for my safety.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Reminds me of a flight on the super-longhaul SIN-LAX
    some years ago.

    Sitting up front, pre-departure drinks, the American business-woman seated next to me, on her first SQ flight, looked around and said…

    “What do you think they do with all the old flight attendants ?”

  2. If you are a member of a frequent flyer program, ranking airlines is just like ranking your wife and her girlfriends.

  3. Funny everybody is down on unions staff but wouldn’t you rather have strong trade unionist Pilot Chesley Sullenberger flying than some frightened, unpaid, over-worked pliot up front?

  4. I’ve noticed on the Delta flights that I’ve taken recently that the FA’s cabin spiel now specifically states ” The flight attendants are here primarily for your safety”. It goes directly in hand with your piece above. Seems like they are actively lowering the expectations from the customer.

  5. @Hello – Sure, I’d love to have Sullenberger fly me if price wasn’t a factor. However what you’re missing is that in a non-union world (and of course with less regulation) flights would be so much cheaper people would fly rather than drive much more often. Even if the non-union pilots were HALF as safe as Sullenberger flying would still be much safer than driving, for a big net gain in lives saved.

    Also, you’re sort of cherry picking your sample. People seem pretty darn happy with their non-union Honda Civics and non-union Samsung TVs.

  6. @Easy Victor – On Continental they are NOT allowed to say they are there primarily for your safety. I hope that attitude survives the merger.

    @Lane – Unions help balance out corporate greed. Companies that treat there employees properly voluntarily never seem to have any worries that their employees will unionize – even in Union dominated industries. I worked at Trader Joe’s for a while and the company voluntarily gave us more than any union employees at competing chains were getting, therefore none of us saw any need for a union. That company by the way was making profit hand over fist! I firmly believe that treating their employees and customers well is the #1 reason why they are so profitable. Airlines should take a page from that playbook!

  7. HunterSFO is exactly correct. Companies that treat their employees with respect, tend to get a lot more out of them, union or not, especially in the service industry. If unions are so bad, how come most European airlines rank much higher than their US counterparts? Ironically, back in the 80s Delta used to be rated one of the top companies to work for nationwide (not just airlines). How far they have fallen…..

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