The late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, built a career out of saying, “I get no respect.” That might become a tagline for America’s airlines. Based on Skytrax’s latest World Airline Awards, America’s airlines are still the butt of jokes.
Skytrax first launched its annual airline survey in 1999. This year, they polled results from 21.65 million customers, on 100 different airlines. They ask fliers to rate their experiences on 49 elements. They included cabin comfort, cabin service, check-in experiences, food, entertainment, boarding efficiency and friendliness. Only one U.S. airline cracked the top 40: Virgin Atlantic ranked 21st.
The World’s Top Ten Airlines In 2019
|#3||ANA All Nippon Airways|
|Source: Skytrax World Airline Awards 2019|
How Did America Stack Up In 2019?
|Source: Skytrax World Airline Awards 2019|
Back in 2012, I wrote about the industry’s woes in, Dale Carnegie 101: Hope for the U.S. Airline Industry. My wife and I fly a lot. To us, U.S. carriers were a bit like cockroaches in a Cambodian bathroom. Sometimes, we couldn’t avoid them. We’re often frugal. But we happily paid higher fares to avoid a U.S. airline. By comparison, they had poor service, snarky flight attendants and lousy in-flight entertainment systems.
Some things, however, have changed and they aren’t yet reflected in Skytrax’s rankings. Over the past three years, I’ve flown on seven of the world’s top ten airlines (based on Skytrax’s poll). With the exception of Virgin Atlantic, I’ve also traveled on each of the above American carriers. And U.S. carriers have improved.
Travel junkie, Neil Dougherty, agrees. The former lawyer-turned international teacher and his family have taken 44 flights this year, alone. The 40-year old has visited 86 countries. His wife, Felice, has traveled to 87 countries. Even their young children, Sara and Kellan, have seen 40 countries each. They’ve flown on dozens of airlines around the world.
“After the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, it was like U.S.-based airlines were in a race to the bottom,” says Neil. “They were cutting so many costs just to keep from going under. In economy, flight service was horrible. The aircraft interiors were worn, aging, and the food was poor, compared to the top carriers. The quality gap between Asian carriers and U.S. carriers was even wider when comparing business and first class.”
United Airlines, in particular, battled several customer service woes. Canadian singer, Dave Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell, took their beef public in the song, United Breaks Guitars.The airline’s reputation hit a new low in 2017 when a doctor was dragged, bleeding, from an overbooked plane. United’s already low ranking bled to 88th position among global airlines.
But Neil and his family have seen some improvements. “About three years ago, we noticed that United and American Airlines began installing new seats in business and economy. In-flight entertainment improved. Meals were edible. At the same time, check-in workers, gate agents and flight attendants felt warmer and kinder.”
Last summer, a mechanical failure delayed the Doughertys for 8 hours. “Instead of abandoning passengers, as we had grown used to them doing, United brought out food and drinks,” says Neil. “They gave us detailed explanations at every step, and even the captain stuck around to talk to passengers.”
Fortunately, improvements to U.S. carriers haven’t gone completely unnoticed. According to Skytrax, United was one of the seven most improved airlines in 2019, where it jumped from #88 to #68.
Michael Harvey has also seen plenty of improvements. Originally from Boston, he now lives in South Korea. He takes at least 5 international flights each year. “Not every Asian carrier is better than its U.S. counterparts,” he says. “My recent flight on Delta Airlines from Seoul to Atlanta was equal to my Korean Air flight to Boston. I also like that U.S. airlines and some European airlines have older, more experienced cabin crews.”
Still, longstanding beliefs that U.S. carriers are lousy might be tough to shake. In 2014, Malaysian Airlines crashed twice. One of the planes is still missing. Yet, in Skytrax’s rankings, Malaysian Airlines trounced every U.S. carrier in 2014 and 2015.
If you’ve flown Qatar Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Emirates or Cathay Pacific, you’ll probably agree that U.S. carriers have a long way to go. But they're much better than they were, just five years ago. Airline improvements might be slow. But the public’s perception to those changes might be even slower.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas