What defines a best airline?

What defines a best airline, considering the different surveys that rank them? Conde Nast Travel has just released its readers’ choice of the best in 2017, and it is no surprise the list is made up of Asian, Middle East, European and SW Pacific carriers.

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Of course, it depends on the readership, but recognizing that, it also points to what really makes these airlines stand out. It is clear that the premium class service weighs heavily – the seat comfort and the fine food.

Etihad Airways (ranked #16) offers “the future of first-class comfort: a three-room “residence” with a bedroom, private bath with shower, and lounge.” Emirates (#4) offers “posh perks for premium fliers – cocktail lounges, in-flight showers… part of the reason it scores so high among travellers.” And the suites on Singapore Airlines (#3) offer “a pair of fully flat recliners that can be combined into a double bed.”

Mention is made of the premium economy class in almost all the ranked airlines” KLM (#20), Lufthansa (#19), Japan Airlines (#17), All Nippon Airways (#13), Qantas (#12), Cathay Pacific (#10), Virgin Atlantic (#7), Virgin Australia (#6), Singapore Airlines (#3) and Air New Zealand (#1).

So it may appear to be the voice of the premium travellers that is being heard. Maybe coach travellers aren’t too concerned about the ranking, more driven by price and less frilly factors, although to be fair, the Conde Nast report did mention of at least one airline, i.e. Etihad Airways (#16), not ignoring “those sitting in the back.” While many travellers may resign to the belief that the economy class is about the same across the industry, it is reasonable to assume that an airline that strives to please its customers in the front cabins will most probably carry that culture or at least part of it to the rear.

Although you may draw consensus across many of the surveys, it is best best to treat each one of them in isolation. It is more meaningful to try and draw intra conclusions within the findings of the particular survey.

You will note in the Conde Nast findings, there is an absence of American (including Canadian) carriers, never mind that of African and South American carriers.

Asiana Airlines (#8) is ranked ahead of Korean Air (#11).

All Nippon Airways (#13) is ranked ahead of Japan Airlines (#17). V

Virgin Australia (#6) is ranked ahead of Qantas (#12).

The order of the “Big 3” Gulf carriers is as follows: Qatar Airways (#2), Emirates (#4) and Etihad Airways (#16).

Of European carriers, there is the conspicuous absence of the big names of British Airways (compare Virgin Atlantic #7) and Air France, and the pleasant surprise of Aegean Airlines (#9) while SWISS seems to be regaining its erstwhile status years ago as being the industry standard.

The best belongs to Air New Zealand as the quiet achiever.

Ultimately, the results also depend on the group of respondents whose experiences may be limited to certain airlines.

Other airlines ranked in the top 20 of the Conde Nast survey: Finnair (#14), Turkish Airlines (#15), EVA Air (#18).

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Travelling across Europe in summer: Expect flight delays

Travelling across Europe during the summer can be a nightmare should anything happen to disrupt the flow of the peak traffic. It may be worse this summer, and travellers should expect delays. Already there are stories of a number people who have missed their flights.

British Airways, Ryanair and EasyJet have advised their customers to allow plenty of time to get through the airport because of enhanced immigration checks. Ryanair suggests that customers arrive at least three hours before departure time.

The European Commission said this is “the price of security”. It is not something most people want to argue about for their safety. New measures to check potential terrorist threats have been introduced, but it looks like some airports are not ready for the implementation. Passengers complained about inadequate border control booths and staff to handle the usual surge in summer travel.

The summer months in the past had also experienced disruptions caused by industrial action. For now, strike action by security workers at Barcelona Airport every Friday, Sunday and Monday since August 4 to last throughout the season has added to the woes of travellers. Let’s hope other disgruntled airport staff and airline crew do not see this as an opportune time to join them.

It may make sense to put off travel to outside the peak months, but for many people this just isn’t possible because of work, school and other commitments.

Standing room only on this flight

Those of us who go to the theatre often enough will be familair with the term “Standing Room Only” (SRO). But SRO on a flight?

Budget airline Viva Colombia has just that in mind. Its founder and CEO William Shaw told The Miami Herald: “There are people out there right now researching whether you can fly standing up. We’re very interested inanything that makes travel less expensive.” So, wey not? After all, he said, “Who cares if you don;t have an in-flight entertainment system for a one-hour flight? Or that you don;t get peanuts?”

This thought isn’t new. As far back as 2010, Ryanair flaoted the idea. (See Standing room only up in the air, July 23, 2010) Actually, instead of standing upright as in a bus, passengers will have “vertical seats” to leab against, complete with seatbelts and a small cushion to support the lopwer back – which is said to be good for people with back problems.

Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary was of the opinion that people flying very short hauls (say, up to two hours) wouldn’t mind standing all the way if the fare was that dirt cheap. Then he was thinking of fitting only the rear of the aircraft with vertical seats as a choice.

Vertical seats, otherwise known as saddle seats. Courtesy Airbus.

In fact Airbus put forth the concept in 2003 with the hope that it might be implemented by 2010. Now the South American carrier based in Medellin, Colombia, is reviving the idea. Guess what, the low-cost operator is partly owned by the founders of Ryanair.

Still, the question that hangs in the air is when and if it happens the regulators will approve the operations as safe-worthy.

More Middle East airlines allow laptops in cabin

Good news for Middle East carriers as the United States gradually exempts them from the ban imposed on the carriage of laptops and other electronic gadgets in the cabin.

Etihad Airlines was the first to announce the lift of the ban, followed by Emirates Airlines and Turkish Airlines. Now Qatar Airways becomes the fourth airline to join the list this week. Saudia, the flagship carrier for Saudi Arabia, said its passengers would be able to carry the electronics on board US-bound flights from 19 July.

This follows strengthened security to meet US standards, which include measures such as enhanced screening, more thorough vetting of passengers and the wider use of bomb-sniffer dogs.

Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and Kuwait have yet to announce similar exemption. The UK government which followed the US in imposing similar restrictions on flights originating from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia have not indicated its readiness to also lift the ban.

For all the initial outcry against the ban and questions about its wisdom, one might concede that the good that came out of it was the greater awareness of in-flight security. But for the airlines compliance means holding up the bottom line. Emirates for one had reported a drop in business because of the ban.

Liquids, laptops and now books

Courtesy Getty Images

AS security screening at airports in the United States gets more stringent as part of the enhanced security program, air travellers can expect longer lines as more items become suspect and subject to more thorough checks.

Added to a host of restrictions on items to be carried into the cabin – objects such as liquids and laptops( if you begin your journey at certain airports in Africa and the Middle East) – are, believe it, books. Under new guidelines issued by the Transportation Security Administration, passengers at some airports have been asked to remove books (even magazines) from carry-on luggage to be screened separately.

Well, we’ve heard of false books or read about them in mystery stories, haven’t we?

There was a time before the advent of electronic devices, a book was almost an essential travelling companion. To be clear, the new rule does not forbid the carriage of a book into the cabin but that it should be screened like your laptop or shoes, and truth be stranger than fiction, there is the odd chance for some reason someone may end up not being allowed to take that book on board!

Indeed, as I had mentioned before in an earlier blog, a time may come when all an air traveller needs to bring with him or her on board are his travel documents and what the administration would define as essentials (such as prescribed mediation) – everything else would or could be provided on board, whether free or at a cost.

Airlines such as Qatar Airways affected by the ban on laptops are already providing loans on board. Looks like a good time for an airline to start an in-flight library of popular books (most likely electronic to avoid carrying additional weight and the cumbersome logistics). Maybe as you book a flight, you may request a copy to be made available. Or bookshops inside the sterile zone could arrange pick-ups of a physical book like your bottle of liquour from Duty Free.

However, in today’s context, the laptop and other electronic devices are likely to be missed more than the physical book by many travellers. So there is good news for Etihad Airways customers as it announced that its plan to conduct “enhanced inspections” had convinced the US to grant it an exemption. Etihad passengers travelling out of Abu Dhabi will go through US customs and border screening before boarding rather than after they touch down in the US.

Canada acts to protect passengers’ rights

Courtesy Toronto Pearson Airport

NO better time than now it is for aviation authorities to step forward and assure air travellers of their rights. The recent spate of complaints about mistreatment by airlines in North America arising from overbooked situations has certainly heightened the awareness of the urgent need for protective measures.

The Canadian government is introducing legislation setting out national standards and measures that will apply to all airlines operating into and out of Canada. Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau warned that if airlines “don’t change some of their practices, there will be repercussions.”

One of the rules applies to bumping passengers off in an overbooking situation. Mr Garneau said: “If somebody has bought a ticket for a particular flight that person cannot be removed from that flight. This is non-negotiable.”

It is however not clear how this rule will play out as it is believed that details on compensation are being worked out. Indeed, the main problem is likely to be one of enforcement and the cost of monitoring as the European Union has found out. At the same time, the rules are often open to different interpretations and dispute, and that in turn makes enforcement difficult and cumbersome. Consequently the whole process takes a long time to be resolved and becomes ineffectual. .

While this is not the first time that measures to protect passengers’ rights are introduced in Canada and the Untied States, one hopes that as the dust over the spate of complaints settles, the matter will be kept in constant review and not be relegated to the back burner.

Humanizing the airline business

Never before was there so much publicity given to customers’ complaints about mistreatment by the airlines in North America ever since the David Dao incident when the seated passenger was forcibly removed from an United Airlines flight by security personnel. Stories of being bumped off a flight abound, and added to these other stories that include flight cancellations and misconnections, checking into an incorrect flight that took the passenger half way around the world, and death of a treasured animal in the cargo hold.

The beef is more about the way such a situation was handled by the airlines than the fact that it did occur. Take, for example, the incident of a 15-year old boy, technically classified as a minor, who was travelling from Denver to Thunder Bay via Toronto on Air Canada. He missed his connection when the flight out of Denver was delayed, and Air Canada duly rebooked him to fly to Thunder Bay the following day but did not offer any accommodation or vouchers for food.

Courtesy Air Canada

In an interview with BC News, Derrin Espinola said he felt “trapped… very hungry, very tired, very scared.” No one helped, even as he went from counter to counter to explain his situation. While Air Canada had issued a statement to say it was “truly sorry”, the blame appeared to have been placed on runway construction works at Toronto’s Pearson Airport and “exacerbated in this case by adverse weather”.

Was this really Espinola’s fault for having faith in the airline’s trusted his service? His mother, Karin Patock, who tried in vain to reach the airline by phone, said she chose Air Canada for its policy about flight delays as stated on its website: “Youths travelling alone (ages 12 to 17) will be taken care of by our agents. We will also arrange for accommodations, meals and transportation if needed.”

The spate of stories now made possible by the power of the social media may have caused many travellers to not believe that airlines in pursuing the dollar do really care for all that they boast to be better than their competitors. But they are beginning to listen, or so it seems as each time a nasty incident like this happens, they apologize readily and are said to be reaching out to the affected passengers and even compensating them as some form of amelioration for their distress, however irreparable.

In the case of denied boarding, which will continue to be practised by most of the airlines with the exception of JetBlue Airlines and Southwest Airlines in their stated policy, the major airlines have vowed to reduce overbooking and increased their compensation for volunteers who give up their seats.

Certainly the authorities have also taken note of the frustrations of passengers within the purview of their legislative responsibility to protect the rights of travellers.

Airline advertisements generally paint the romance of caring crew and other personnel to reduce the stress of travelling. Mind you, many of them do live up to their word. Recent incidents could signal a timely re-focus on procedural constraints and methodology in tackling difficult situations. The social media has given voice to travellers, and what is happening is a humanizing of the airline business as a reminder to carriers that they are dealing not with mere business numbers but people who deserve to be treated with dignity.