Business Travel: Smaller Airlines Get the Best Ratings
By JOE SHARKEY
Most airline performances declined over the last few years, with long
lines, unpredictable delays, crowding and disorganization over all
making air travel less appealing — except for those people who were
in first class or business class," Tim Zagat said yesterday. "And
even they noted that the level of service was not always what they
would have liked."
Now before some wiseacre hollers "Whoa, stop the presses!" let us
note that Mr. Zagat is not just another voice grumbling from the
dim recesses of the departure lounge when he talks about airline
performance. Rather, he is an impresario of qualitative and
quantitative consumer ratings: the co-founder, with his wife, Nina,
of Zagat Survey, which publishes those pithy, opinionated guides to
restaurants, hotels and other travel and leisure services.
Yesterday, the Zagats released their 2001 Airline Survey, which
rates the performances of 70 domestic and foreign airlines. The
survey — the first conducted by the company since 1998 — is based
on evaluations by more than 31,000 airline customers, including
nearly 1,000 travel agents. On average, the respondents took 15.7
domestic and 3.9 international flights last year, according to Mr.
Zagat. Airlines are rated numerically, with grades for comfort,
service, food and cost, and also awarded an overall numerical score
— "30 being perfection; zero being terrible," Mr. Zagat said.
You can find the survey on the Zagat Web site, www.zagat.com.
Following are some highlights, starting with the airlines that
customers decided performed best.
In general, midsize and smaller carriers were the highest rated.
The top-rated domestic airline for economy-class travel was Midwest
Express Airlines, a Milwaukee-based carrier that promotes business-
class-style seating and service at coach prices. Customers raved
about its leather seats, free Champagne, real china and friendly
crews — all "reminders of what's possible" in air travel, as one
passenger put it.
Finishing behind Midwest in the top five over all were JetBlue
Airways, a "role model" for discount carriers, Mr. Zagat said in
summarizing customers' ratings; Alaska Airlines; Midway Airlines;
and National Airlines.
For premium-service seats, the top five domestic carriers were
Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Continental Airlines, American
Airlines and United Airlines. Of the major airlines in this group,
Continental got high marks for its new fleet, its extensive
schedule of nonstop cross- country flights and its highly regarded
frequent-flier program. Customers liked American's new roomier
coach seats but didn't much care for the self-serve bags the
airline passes out for breakfast and lunch, which one customer
called "a joke."
Interestingly, United made the top five in premium class despite a
sorry record of delays and cancellations last year. Some customers
suggested that was because the airline had been making real efforts
to win back customer good will with improved food and
frequent-flier program bonuses.
Since the previous survey in 1998, "Continental clearly made the
greatest improvements" domestically, Mr. Zagat said.
Internationally, Continental performed even better, according to
the survey. "It jumped 3 points over all in our ratings, which is
the most of any of the 70 airlines that were surveyed," Mr. Zagat
said. "It's a major turnaround for an airline of that scale."
For international flights, Singapore Airlines was top-ranked in
both premium and economy classes. Readers called it "the standard
for quality" and the best of the Star Alliance partners. Virgin
Atlantic also scored well among foreign carriers, especially in
premium class, where it was rated second behind Singapore by
customers who praised Virgin's "hip" environment, personal amenity
kits, extensive in-seat entertainment choices, and on-board
"massages and manicures at 2 a.m."
Following among the top 10 premium rankings were Cathay Pacific,
Thai Airways, Air New Zealand, Swissair, Qantas, Japan Airlines,
British Airways and South African Airways.
In economy, after Singapore, eight of the same airlines turned up,
in slightly different order and with the exception of Scandinavian
Airlines System, which displaced British Air in the list.
Zagat surveys are best known for customer comments, which range
from effusive and admiring to qualified and diffident to downright
derisive. Dissatisfied Zagat raters are notoriously brutal, as
suggested by unpublished comments from restaurant reviewers listed
on the Web site: "Dishes taste like road kill," one diner wrote of
a restaurant. "Food tastes like socks," said another, of a separate
establishment. "Be sure to sit in the no-shooting section," someone
else warned. And readers of the airline survey looking for the
zingers won't be disappointed.
"Should be on Antiques Roadshow," one customer said of the
Northwest Airlines fleet.
"Then there are the ones where you kind of wonder why they
bother," Mr. Zagat said of some foreign airlines' ratings. "Like
Egypt Air, where one of the quotes was `the words on-time don't
exist.' Of Olympic Airlines, another flier asked, `How about
cleaning the jets once in a while?' " he said.
And how about that Aeroflot? You want to talk bum trip? "Aeroflot
got an overall score of only 4.9, which is about 4 to 5 points
below anyone else," Mr. Zagat said. "Not for the faint of heart,"
one reviewer said of the Russian carrier.
Other international airlines got qualified praise, like
Aeroméxico, lauded for its "free beer" and "nice selection of
tequila" — all the better to ward off the "biting bugs" that one
dissatisfied customer said came along for the ride.
The Business Travel column appears each Wednesday. E-mail: