Ask the pilot

What is Salon readers' favorite airline? Hint: It's not one of the big three U.S. carriers.

By Patrick Smith

Published May 7, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

Before proceeding, I'd like to share the following e-mail. It illustrates a point -- a disclaimer almost -- fairly essential to my next few columns, in which your choices of best and worst airlines are revealed after three weeks of voting. Like all of the letters to be excerpted, it has been edited for clarity.

"It's not the airline itself. Every flight is different. I see no consistency on any airline, and I fly often: Air France, Air New Zealand, Varig, Thai, Alitalia, United, Continental, British Airways. They all can be good, or even great. Yet any can also be a desperately uncomfortable experience."

I'm equally pleased and surprised that my survey elicited fewer vindictive tirades than expected. Reports of pleasant experiences arrived evenly with the inevitable rants and horror stories. In total, slightly more votes were cast for best airline than for worst.

Obviously the poll was not scientific, but we must have done something right, since the overall results are a close match with those of the industry's respected pollsters. It took SkyTrax 10 million opinions to decide which was the world's top carrier. We managed to pick the same airline with 500.

What came in, mainly, were impressions and observations from casual, semiregular travelers. I'm comfortable with that. A majority of people, let's remember, are not hardcore frequent fliers, and lasting opinions, good and bad, are often hard-forged through single encounters. For an airline, pleasing the twice-a-year vacationer is perhaps no less consequential than pleasing -- or pissing off -- that million-mile regular in first class. In a forest-for-the-trees folly, carriers tend to bend over backward for their favorite clients, assuming theirs is the better gauge of quality. If I were in charge, I'd probably choose a less jaded demographic as my bellwether. No doubt I'm standing on its head some basic tenet of economics 101 here, in my idealized notion of management. But I'd do it anyway.

Winners are based on raw total scores, with votes for and against canceling each other out. I'd intended to allow negatives and positives to stand in separate tallies, but over time this seemed less and less fair. "Sadly," expressed an e-mailer from California, "I have to vote Southwest Airlines for both best and worst." Southwest as the top and bottom finisher simultaneously? For a while it was shaping up that way, and that's something we're just not ready for, emotionally.

Salon Readers Choice for Favorite Airline, and winner of the prestigious Ask the Pilot Round of Applause:

Singapore Airlines

If you have a map handy, please notice that the city-state of Singapore rests 8,000 miles from the West Coast of the United States. Granted this column has its share of foreign readers (Kazakhstan, would you believe?), but that Singapore Airlines, which presently calls port in a total of four North American destinations, should draw more ballots than American, United, Delta, et al., is astounding. It was also the only airline, domestic or foreign, to receive a unanimous score.

"No need to comment for anybody who has ever flown this airline. You're overwhelmed by comfort and politeness. And Changi Airport is a blast."

"Last year some friends flew Singapore to Thailand on their honeymoon. When they came back, did they show us photos of blue water and white sands? No, they showed us the amazing menu from Singapore Airlines first class. They talked of how the crew opened two different bottles of $200 champagne, and how they were given new robes to wear for each leg of the flight!"

And so on. To be fair, not everyone is so smitten, though the closest to any legitimately negative feedback was a smattering of ambivalence.

"If I hear one more time how Singapore Airlines is the greatest thing to happen to aviation since the propeller, I am going to puke. They are no better than any other foreign carriers I have flown."

Singapore's reputation precedes it. My own experience, in fact, is in line with the detraction above. The trip was perfectly pleasant, but hardly spectacular. That was 18 years ago, I'll admit, aboard an old, classic series 747. Not even seatback video in those days.

Regulars to these pages already know Singapore Airlines recently debuted the world's longest nonstop flight, an 18-hour marathon between its home base and Los Angeles. An even longer Newark jaunt is on tap for this fall. Reports from so-called Executive Economy, an upgraded coach section laid out specifically for these megahauls, cite a more comfortable ride than first class in many U.S. domestic markets.

In Singapore's long-haul premium cabins (layouts vary with destination and aircraft type), even the concept of a "seat" has become obsolete. First-class patrons may indulge in their own SkySuite -- a thronelike space replete with duvet, your own set of pajamas, and personalized turndown service. Yeah, it's Vegas, but it's a Vegas I wouldn't mind enduring at 35,000 feet for a while. Stepping into the forward cabin of a Singapore Airlines 747-400 is, in the words of Air Transport World magazine, "like entering another world." ATW gave Singapore its Passenger Service Award for 2004.

Not like it needed it, having garnered enough awards and accolades over the past two decades to fill a museum. Suffice to say that year after year, every industry clique and travel publication ranks the airline at or around the top of virtually every classification. It even won the Condé Nast poll for best trans-Atlantic business class (flights from New York currently go eastbound, refueling in Europe). Check the "Airline" category of Fortune's list of World's Most Admired Companies, guess who's No. 1? Singapore pulled in a $600 million net profit for 2002, second best in the world (latest available full-year comparisons).

With all due respect to Singapore -- and before this becomes a shameless advertisement -- I'm adding a second category to our competition. Most of you aren't traipsing to Asia on a regular basis, so let's pick a local too. Readers Choice, Favorite U.S. Airline:


I smelled this one coming. JetBlue lands a hearty victory over the well-respected boutique carriers, Midwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. The jury remains out as to whether JetBlue's formula is the stuff of long-term triumph, but they are, for now, a potentially poisonous thorn in the sides of the legacy players, with a swanky verve, streamlined infrastructure and a young and energized workforce.

"Quiet yet competent service, wholly rational fares. Throw in a soupcon of slightly retro, fully unsnarky cool, and you have an airline that epitomizes, in my view, comfortable and egalitarian air travel."

"It is possible that JetBlue is a flash in the pan, taking advantage of its below-market Airbus leases and technology of the moment (DirecTV). But a round trip to Denver for $189, snacking on gourmet chips, drinking $3 Heinekens, watching live NBA playoffs in a leather seat, cannot be beat."

"Their Web site is well-designed and easy to use. Low prices, laid-back staff, and an attention to detail and comfort that I would never have expected." Readers Choice, Honorary Mention:

British Airways

"I've flown B.A. business class to Johannesburg a dozen-plus times in the last 18 months. I choose them rather than going direct on other airlines, even though it includes a 10-hour London layover. The service makes the long trip a pleasure."

"I 'commute' from Dallas to India on a regular basis, and I can tell you categorically that British Airways business class has no competition: flat beds, cheerful attendants, and airport lounges with hot showers and good munchies."

Back on the international front, B.A. proved to be Singapore's toughest competitor, probably owing to its status as the most popular European visitor to our shores. Often enough B.A. is an American citizen's first exposure to a foreign carrier.

Virgin Atlantic

"Virgin's Upper Class -- the service, the attitude, the massage, the new flat bed (complete with hot water bottle and bedtime storybook), and the bacon sandwiches."

"Suddenly, the flight across the Atlantic has become too short! And I think their food is the best around now, especially with the seemingly unlimited flow of wine and tea."

With all that wine and tea, I hope their lavs are nice. You couldn't pay me to eat a bacon sandwich, by the way, and I didn't know about the bedtime book. Usually I read the emergency exit seating conditions, on the back of the in-pocket briefing card. Less charm but a better sleeping pill, I bet.

Alaska Airlines

"Alaska is the tops, not just in the air, but on the ground too with a cutting-edge Web site, Web tickets, online check-in and the best frequent flier program anywhere."

"They have a Web site which is easy to handle; they fly on time; their crews are friendly and efficient; they are one of the least punitive carriers around."

Midwest Airlines (formerly Midwest Express)

"These guys rock! They are customer oriented, and nothing beats their freshly baked chocolate chip cookies!"

"The whole plane is wide leather chairs laid out two-by-two; no misery over the dreaded middle seat. The first time I sampled their mythical chocolate chip cookies, I thought I'd gone to air travel heaven. I remember lobster newberg on a brunch flight from Milwaukee. Ceramic plates and metal flatware."

Shock: I'm told Midwest has begun charging for meals, though the cookies, apparently, are still free.

Air France

"I was startled at the level of creature comforts in Air France economy. The firm seats, with adjustable head- and footrests; the efficient tray tables, hooks and cup holders; the clear, working video displays; the nose-view video camera. Such a contrast to anything I've experienced before."

My sleeper award goes to Air France, a name that, in my opinion, doesn't get the respect it deserves. Having sampled economy class to India, Mali and Egypt during the past couple of years, I've been impressed each time by the free wine, unlimited baguettes, entertainment options and amenities packets. The latter, with earplugs and eyeshades, is a welcome touch in coach. If the airline faces one hugely damaging liability, it's the concrete oubliette that is Charles de Gaulle airport.

Miscellaneous Laurels and Comments

Continental was the only U.S. major to summon more positive votes than negative. Quite a comeback for a carrier that not many years ago was a laughingstock of service and efficiency. One person remarked how Continental's transpacific business class "roundly spanked" its better-regarded counterpart at Korean Air.

American Airlines was the only member of the Big Three (United and Delta are the others) to score respectably, i.e., a roughly even measure of love letters and hate mail. Many seem to appreciate A.A.'s economy-class enhancements, including added legroom and in-seat power sources on chosen flights.

Other high grades are owed to Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Malaysia Airlines, and Air New Zealand. Most of these, somewhat akin to Singapore, are traditional high finishers, but did not earn enough feedback to qualify for honorary mention above.

"SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) to Copenhagen. Ten years ago and I still remember how good the flight was. There was a big counter where a chef prepared the meals in front of us."

"Jet Airways, a domestic carrier in India. New Delhi to Bangalore, it's business class for about $130, with a fantastic meal and a comfortable seat on a new plane. A complete delight, and I was handed an extensive questionnaire asking about the presentation of the food and the comfort of the seats."

"LanChile. Similar to the best Euro or Asians, with great prices. Clean new jets, seat back entertainment (with pause/FF/rewind), passable food and friendly attendants. Added bonus: gringos who speak Spanish often get bumped up to business at the Lima counter, just for being gringos who speak Spanish. As a gringo who speaks Spanish, I'm hooked!"

Next week ... the worst of the worst.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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