To nobody's surprise, Cathay Pacific came in as the number one "airline of the year" on the latest Skytrax ratings of the world's major airlines. This survey, which Skytrax modestly claims to be "a most respected global airline passenger study," always generates a lot of ink and pixels, along with some controversy, but you can hardly escape it. And if you judge on the basis of the awards for North America, you may rethink your trust in the results.
The Usual Suspects. In common with most other airline surveys, the Skytrax top-10 award list is loaded with Asian lines: Eight of the top 10 -- Cathay Pacific, Qatar, Singapore, Emirates, ANA, Garuda, Asiana and Etihad -- are based in Asia; Turkish at number five and Lufthansa at number 10 are the only non-Asian winners. Emirates' high rating is a bit of a surprise, in that, earlier, Skytrax announced that no airline with extra-tight 10-across seating in 777s could earn the highest five-star rating.
Best in North America. Most readers of this column are more likely to fly U.S. and Canadian lines than they are to fly any of the top 10. And here, the Skytrax scores are, to put it kindly, puzzling. The ranking, from top to bottom, goes this way: Air Canada, WestJet, Virgin America, Delta, United, Porter, JetBlue, Alaska, Southwest and American Eagle. I'll concede high marks to Air Canada, Virgin America, and Porter. But Delta and United better than JetBlue, Alaska, or Southwest? Feh! Industry mavens continue to wring their hands about "why can't United fix its problems," and Delta's stinginess with frequent flyer seats should put it near the bottom of a typical U.S. traveler's list. Other surveys repeatedly rank JetBlue, Alaska, and Southwest, along with Hawaiian, well above United and Delta. And American Eagle perennially ranks near the bottom of the Airline Quality Scores based on Department of Transportation statistics.
Some smaller North American lines are included with the giant lines; others earning top-10 scores as regional lines are Alaska, Silver, Go! (which recently folded), Frontier, Sun Country, and Allegiant. Still no Hawaiian? And Porter, a much smaller line, is in the overall top-10, but Alaska is only a regional?
Best in Back. As I've noted before, Skytrax scores seem to be heavily biased toward ratings derived from business-class travelers. I'm pretty sure that most readers are more concerned with how well travelers in the "main cabin" fare. Skytrax says the top 10 in lines for economy class are Asiana, Garuda, Turkish, Qatar, Cathay Pacific, Singapore, EVA, Oman, Emirates, and Thai -- still almost entirely Asian. The 777 is becoming a new standard long-haul international aircraft, and among these top 10 airlines, Asiana, Cathay Pacific, EVA, Garuda, Qatar, Singapore, Thai, and Turkish all use the preferred nine-across seating, Oman doesn't fly the 777, and only Emirates uses the unfortunate 10-across configuration. But Emirates is clearly indifferent to creature comfort in the rear cabin: Its managers are openly discussing going to 11-across economy seating on the lower deck of its A380s.
Best Premium Economy. The top-10 lines for premium economy services are a bit more believable: Air New Zealand, Qantas, Turkish, ANA, JAL, Cathay Pacific, British Airways, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia. Don't be surprised at the lack of North American entrants here: Of them, only Air Canada offers a premium economy option, and it's too new to be included. The main surprise in this list is why OpenSkies, the British Airways subsidiary, didn't score with what looks like an excellent product.
The Food. Ratings for the best economy class meals pretty much duplicated the overall economy ratings, with some order shuffling. The only non-Asian, non-Pacific lines to crack the top 10 for business-class meals are Austrian, at number five -- love that wienerschnitzel -- and South African, at number 10.
The Take-Away. All in all, Skytrax doesn't distinguish itself with the latest rankings: Results from North America raise their overall validity into sharp question. Still, they're out there; use them as you think best. For more detail, visit http://www.worldairlineawards.com/awards(underscore)2013/airline2013.htm.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at email@example.com. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)
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