Sometimes the national-flag air carriers of your vacation destination might offer not only a better airfare, but a better flying experience.
When traveling outside the United States for the first time, you may reflexively jump on the first U.S.-based airline flying there.
Many countries have their own national-flag airlines that fly from U.S. airports. They’re not necessarily government-owned; they just “represent.” And even in this era of mergers, buyouts and code-sharing alliances, not only do their fares often compare with those of U.S. airlines, but they may offer a much better travel experience, making them a better value for the money.
As a college student, I started hearing from friends who’d flown on JAL, Japan Air Lines, and marveled at the experience. Back then, there was no Travelocity or Priceline, and thus little talk of bargains. But they raved over the service.
Several years later, on my first trip to Asia, I flew on one of JAL’s shiny new Boeing 747s, and everything was exactly as advertised. I felt I’d experienced the pinnacle of air travel.
In reality, I had no idea.
Part of this trip called for a five-hour flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong, and I couldn’t wait to get back on board that JAL 747. No such luck. The flight would be made aboard an old Boeing 707, with some outfit called Cathay Pacific, based in Hong Kong.
Cathy who? Never heard of ‘em. I knew that plane, though. One narrow aisle, six cramped seats across. Misery, here we come.
The surprises begin the moment we board. I knew being a stewardess was hard work, but these women are running up and down the aisle. I overhear someone say the stewardesses have to speak the languages of all the countries the airline serves, which is half of Asia. Pretty impressive.
A few minutes after takeoff from Tokyo Haneda, a steward is dispensing drinks from a cart — mainly Foster’s Lager from Australia and San Miguel beer from the Philippines.
“Complimentary,” he says. That wouldn’t happen on a U.S. airline.
Pretty cool, and this Foster’s not bad, either. When he comes back offering refills, I reach for my wallet. If the first beer was on the house, most likely they want cash for the second, right?
THE MAGIC WORD
“No, no, sir, it’s complimentary.”
Suddenly, I am liking this airline.
Dinner is up next. They give us…a menu? Your choice of entrees, appetizers, desserts? Linen napkins? Silver silverware?
All this, in Sardine Class.
I’m now liking this airline a lot.
Here comes steward again, and he’s packing — a bottle of Australian red wine in one hand, white in the other. Your choice. I didn’t even know Australia made wine.
“Complimentary,” he says. And so are the refills. Had the red wine last time? Care to try the white?
Good God, who are these guys?
A PARTY SEVEN MILES UP
And the food? Before long, perfect strangers are swapping entrees with one another, and marveling over all of it.
When the steward spots a trio of convivial seatmates, he leaves them a bottle of wine, or two. It’s a party, y’all…at 37,000 feet!
And yes, it’s complimentary.
By now, I’m convinced there’s something seriously wrong with the airplane and they’re hoping we won’t notice. But we’re spinning wildly out of control and—
No…wait…that’s just my head.
Everybody’s loosening their seatbelts, waiting for the cabin crew to clear away our trays so we can comfortably settle back into what is now a very contented flight.
Only steward isn’t done with us yet. He’s bringing the after-dinner cognac.
Do I even have to say it now?
I’m now convinced that the wings have fallen off the aircraft and we are plunging at warp speed toward the Pacific—and I really don’t care!
We make a brief refueling stop in Taipei, then take off for the second leg of the flight to Hong Kong. And that whole sequence described above — drinks, dinner, wines, cognac — starts all over again!
We are a very mellow planeload of tourists when we stroll, roll and occasionally stagger out of Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong and onto the buses taking us all to our hotel.
When the tour guide asks if anybody’s hungry, we look at her like she’s lost her mind!
Poor girl, wasn’t her fault. She’d never flown Cathay Pacific.
All national-flag airlines are not created equal. JAL no longer has the sterling reputation it did back in the 1970s. They recently even had to get bailout help from American Airlines. Talk about a reversal of fortune!
Cathay Pacific, however, has been named Airline of the Year by the British airline research group Skytrax five out of the last ten years. Their other top-rated airlines have names like Singapore Airlines, Asiana, Qatar, Etihad, Thai Airways, Emirates, Malaysia Airlines and Qantas — not just last year, but consistently.
Singapore in particular has built a reputation for efficiency and service that spans decades.
You’ll notice there’s not a single U.S.-based airline in that list. Even European giants like British Airways, Air France, KLM and Lufthansa don’t make the cut.
Not all national-flag carriers measure up to the standards of these airlines, but a common thread runs through all those who do: It’s not just about the money. National pride is involved.
The people who work for these airlines see themselves as ambassadors for their countries, they know how much tourism means to their national economies, and they want to “represent” the best way they can.
So when you’re researching a trip to abroad, look into some of the national-flag airlines of that country. The experience might almost make flying fun again.
In the next segment, we’ll talk about airline safety, including how to check out an airline’s safety record and the red flags that make an airline one to avoid.