The world’s best airlines for the long-haul experience

Qatar’s economy class comes out on top.
Qatar’s economy class comes out on top.
Image: REUTERS/Andrew Winning
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We’ve put on our thinking caps to develop a rating methodology which helps us determine the best cabin experiences around the world.

We wanted a system which put the very subjective “best” in an objective context. After much hard work, we’re proud to present our first “Best Economy Long-Haul Experience” results.

We haven’t found a sound metric available which isn’t clouded by dubious associations and methodologies. There are passenger ratings systems which are more reliable, such as those found on TripAdvisor and SeatGuru and the Passenger Choice Awards coordinated through a study by the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX). All of those are valid resources, but subject to an individual’s ability to judge their recent flight experience fairly in a larger context of the market. In other words, they may not reflect the average experience of the average passenger on the average flight.

We wanted to avoid these biases as much as possible. We also wanted to consider the overall passenger experience point-to-point, and to give ratings which, though always subjective, could be justified as equitable.

As a result of all this factor refining, research, evaluation and number crunching, we’ve come up with the Skift airlines ratings system. Is it perfect? No. Hardly. It’s one we plan to continue to work on and refine, but we hope you’ll find it a good start.

Airlines were chosen from around the world, broken up by the international travel markets. In order to trim down this to a manageable number, we included airlines that our readers were most likely to have reason to fly, based on the larger numbers of daily departures and destinations each airline offered.

This meant some airlines which we would very much have liked to include were left out. They were simply smaller than competitors in their region, but may appear in other ratings in the future. By using this approach, we represent the big three alliances, and put like competitors to equal scrutiny. We include the numbers here so that you can see how the airlines rate by relative size.

We judged long-haul as a flight from the airline’s major hub to a major hub in Europe or the US, as appropriate. Wherever possible, we pulled information directly from the airline, but we did resort to SeatGuru for certain cabin features an airline might not have listed. We did not take SeatGuru’s results on face-value but also looked at recent changes to cabin features, such as the availability of Wi-Fi, and developed our own gauge for comfort which we will explain.

The measurements

Because we wanted to consider the overall point-to-point experience, we started with baggage restrictions and UX (user experience) of the website. Baggage restrictions did not weigh into the score, they are merely listed for reference. They provide an interesting picture of regions where people most like to shop on their trip, with airlines making special allowances to encourage that.

Website UX did weigh heavily in the score. Whereas other technological features were (fittingly) judged on a binary method (0=No, 1=Yes), we used an overall 0-10 rating for the website, as with other cabin comfort factors. In our opinion, a high-quality website is a reasonable feat for any company in a modern world to accomplish. We feel airlines should make the basic effort to make booking online a pleasure, and believe it reflects the attention paid to details. Considering the dosh spent on making cabins dishy, it seems cheap to not spend the few bob required for a nicer website. It hardly reflects good brand management.

The seat comfort factors of pitch, seat width, and what we have labelled as room/comfort are likewise based on an overall 0-10 rating. You’d have to make people stand up to get a zero, and your seats would have to be just about ready to fall apart for a one, two or three. We found that the most appropriate measure for long-haul flights, where most airlines provide greater seat comfort compared to their domestic operations, was to consider seating nuisance.

Ranking the world’s long-haul economy sections

Etihad does not publish daily flight numbers. Calculated based on more than 1,000 flights per week as reported by SkyScanner.
**Emirates does not publish daily flight numbers. Calculated based on more than 3,000 flights per week as reported by SkyScanner
Click through to original to see all of the data

To that end, no airline that put 10-abreast on its aircraft, except on A380 operations, could get anything above a four (below average) score. Even airlines that have A380 operations, get no higher than a six (above average) score for this reason. It’s just inconvenient to try to step in and out to stretch your legs, or go to the toilets, in 10-abreast cabins. To earn a score of eight, airlines had to have exceptional room in the pitch and width categories and an eight-abreast/nine-abreast cabin configuration.

No airline could earn a nine or 10, because this is a rating of the economy cabin and we don’t want to be ridiculous. An economy cabin flight is never going to have an overall “feel-good” factor above eight. Until the day that airlines prove us wrong; we’d like to see that happen, but we don’t believe it is economically viable.

The meal/beverage rating is based on an airline’s ability to make the in-flight meal appear appetizing. Whether something is tasty is a very subjective and debatable, so presentation played a big part in this score. Make a little effort to make food look good, and you scored higher than average.

In-flight entertainment (IFE) is a critical factor of a long-haul flight experience. We judged this category based on a combination of the quality of the hardware and the variety of content available onboard. IFE is a huge investment, and we felt airlines should get due credit for making sure their passengers are properly entertained on long flights.

The binary ratings for Wi-Fi, in-seat power, and seamless tech (such as an app to make check-in easier) reflect the reality that properly judging any of these with other than a “yes” or “no” value is not feasible at this time. We’ve previously explained the relative performance of Wi-Fi networks, and costs are all over the place. It seemed appropriate to limit ourselves to judging whether an airline has made the effort to provide connectivity, not necessarily whether that effort has been worth the while. We expect to change Wi-Fi to a satisfaction rating in future. For now, airlines got an extra point just for trying.

We allowed ourselves the most subjective judgement on aesthetic appeal. With experience seeing these programs develop and knowing the possibilities available for design, we believe our judgment on whether something is as attractive as it should or could be is adequate. You can feel free to disagree with us. We should also note that we judged airlines on their best available product. While many airlines have begun new image programs, and we’ve judged the aesthetics on those, not all aircraft in a fleet may yet have these new cabins. We apologize to passengers who have to fly those old planes in advance, and ask airlines to hurry it up a bit so they don’t make us look bad.

With that preamble, here are the results you’ve been waiting for (drumroll implied):

The world’s best long-haul economy airline is a tie between Etihad and Qatar Airways.

Surprised? So were we, a bit. Yes, both airlines have made great efforts to put their product forward, but weren’t about to be motivated by advertising or coverage (even our own). We wanted numbers. It was a very close call. When we looked at the performance on individual factors, we weren’t sure whether these airlines would indeed prove to be the best. It appears their efforts to go above and beyond the norm have paid-off.

Notice that both are only one point over our noble three-way-tie runners up: Turkish Airlines, Emirates Airlines, and All Nippon Airways (ANA). This very close and tied result satisfies us that the system we’ve come up with recognizes quality and fairly represents how the details make a difference.

Of course, flight frequency and scope of network, as well as the regional ratings, are critically important. After all, the core question is: how likely is your next long-haul economy flight to be the best? For that reason, we’ve also awarded best world-wide long haul economy to the Star Alliance partners. Three of their airlines members won best in their region, and all (with the exception of a notable one) were strong performers. United will need to step up its game to catch up with its network partners.

The OneWorld Network was a close runner up when it came to comfort, as you can see from the chart above.

Our Regional “Can’t Misses” (like Miss Universe, without the blatant sexism) follow:

North America’s Best: American Airlines
Latin America’s Best: Avianca
Europe’s Best: Turkish Airlines
Africa’s Best: South African Airways
Middle East’s Best: Etihad and Qatar (tie)
Asia/Pacific’s Best: All Nippon Airways (ANA)

Congratulations to all our participants. Airlines are encouraged to take notes, and consider where they might improve. Those airlines we did not include we may include in other ratings categories, so don’t fret. OK?

This post originally appeared at Skift. Read more:

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