Travel+Leisure magazine readers make their annual choice of the world’s top 20 airlines. Asian, Pacific and Middle Eastern airlines dominate the top spots. European carriers fill out the rest. US airlines? Barely there.
There are certain things in life you can always count on. Water will be wet. The sun will rise in the East. And Asian airlines will be deemed the best in the world by those who fly.
I know Singapore Airlines only by its reputation, but that reputation is solid enough to make Caesar’s wife look like Paris Hilton.
The latest evidence comes courtesy of Travel+Leisure magazine, which annually asks its readers to name their favorite 20 airlines worldwide, based on cabin comfort, food, in-flight service, customer service, and value.
This year’s winner, for the 17th year in a row: Singapore Airlines.
The nation and people of Singapore are teased and mocked somewhat as allegedly being rigid, emotionless and anal-retentive to the max. But when some of the world’s most experienced and discerning travelers name your airline the best in the world for 17 years running, you clearly are doing something right.
And that’s not the only consistency revealed in this latest T+L airline survey. Of the top ten spots, six are held by airlines from Asia or the Pacific region:
- Singapore Airlines
- Air New Zealand
- Korean Air (South Korea)
- Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong)
- Asiana (South Korea)
- Thai International Airways (Thailand)
Two of the remaining four spots go to Middle Eastern airlines — Emirates and Qatar. The last two positions are held by a European airline, Virgin Atlantic, and its US spinoff, Virgin America.
(NOTE: T+L counts Virgin America as a US airline. IBIT does not.)
The rest of the list looks like this — Taiwan, Japan, Australia, Japan, Tahiti, Switzerland, Israel and Finland.
The one and only true US carrier (for my money, anyway) to crack this list — JetBlue, in 16th place.
I’ve flown a handful of these airlines myself — Cathay Pacific, Japan Air Lines, Air Tahiti Nui — and I can tell you they have their spots in T+L’s top 20 on merit. Likewise, I know a lot of folks who have flown JetBlue and swear by it, so I suspect their place in the top 20 is legit.
The question that always comes to my mind is, why is the rest of the US airline industry utterly unable to join the company of the world’s elite airlines?
Because the most surprising thing about the T+L list is that it’s no surprise at all. Virtually every credible survey taken of the world’s air travelers for the last two decades yields pretty much the same results, year after year after year.
The Asian, Pacific and Middle Eastern airlines dominate. The European airlines represent. US-based airlines will show up somewhere toward the middle of the pack at best, depending on the survey’s format.
When it comes to naming the world’s best, America’s airlines barely show up at all.
This is not an aberration. This is not a fluke. Flukes don’t last 20 years. The question is, why?
The clue lies in the categories on which T+L readers based their ratings — cabin comfort, food, in-flight service, customer service, and value.
In all these areas, there is a common thread among the top airlines. They go above and beyond the call for their passengers, both in the air and on the ground. They may not always be the cheapest seats in the sky, but you know you’re always getting your money’s worth, and then some.
I stil have vivid memories of trying to get out of a hopelessly overcrowded Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris one cloudy fall morning.
Six different jumbo jets from six different airlines, including Air Tahiti Nui, had been scheduled to take off from the same terminal at more or less the same time. That meant funneling close to 2,000 passengers simultaneously through exactly three security gates.
The lines of people checking in and then trying to get through security barely moved, backed up so badly that they merged into one another. Some people spent a half-hour or more before realizing they were in the wrong line. Airlines were announcing imminent departures. French airport security was totally indifferent.
The businessman in from of me was trying to get back to Toronto. Air Canada literally had left him at the gate the day before under these same circumstances. Now, he was back for Round Two, fearing he was about to be left again.
All the while this nightmare was in progress, a check-in clerk from Air Tahiti Nui was running — and I do mean running — up and down the different lines, shouting at the top of her lungs:
“If you are flying on Air Tahiti Nui, do not worry! We will not leave without you!”
By now, Im wondering if I can get back to my hotel in time to reclaim my old room.
That Air Tahiti Nui flight pushed back from the gate an hour late, but it left Paris with every one of its passengers. I was among the last six to board.
How many US-based airlines do you think would have gone that far for its last six passengers — and Coach passengers, at that?
By and large, US airlines are not horrible. They’re just not great, either. Worse, they seem to be okay with their middling status, as long as they can show a profit.
Being mediocre is not a crime. Being content with it is, or it should be.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so galling were it not for the fact that this is the country that not only invented the airplane, but invented the airline business itself.
What would it take for America’s airlines to raise their game in the eyes of the world’s travelers? Any ideas?