New Delhi, December 26, 2017: In the first part of this annual recap, I covered recent changes in airline lounges and travel credit cards for frequent flyers, and these generally transcend your choice of who to actually fly. That’s what we get to in this segment.
To quickly recap if you didn’t read Part 1, I have covered aviation here at Forbes for many years, covered it for other outlets including Investor’s Business Daily for many years before that, and personally fly an average of around 150,000 miles annually. I have flown every major domestic airline, legacy and non-legacy, currently hold Platinum status on both United and American, and – for another week – Gold on Delta. I’ve had elite status on other domestic and international carriers, have flown also most top European carriers and many other international airlines as well, in a variety of classes.
In addition, this year I put together an expert poll on aviation for a major print magazine using top travel agents, aviation experts, and travel journalists focused on aviation. For business reasons beyond my control, the project got axed, but not before I tabulated the final results, so some of these never before seen critical expert rankings will be included here.
Alliances: There are three major international airline alliances, each of which have one of the big three US carriers: Star (United), One World (American) and Sky Team (Delta), and there is no doubt in my mind that currently Star Alliance is the best overall, as my panelists confirmed by giving it the top spot. Passengers with Gold or higher status on a participant or those flying business or first class can use any of the member airline lounges, and redeem miles across the alliance, which has an amazing 28 airlines, including the most top quality members and several of the airlines perennial ranked among the world’s very best, namely Singapore (rated Best in Asia), Thai, Turkish (Best in many categories), Air New Zealand, ANA, South African Airways (Best in Africa), and EVA. The one notable weak link is Air Canada, which I have had to fly a fair amount and never ceases to underwhelm me. However, the other alliances all have more weak links, fewer airlines, fewer standout airlines, and with the notable exception of British Airways (teamed up with American in One World), are especially weak in Europe, the most popular overseas market for Americans. The Star Alliance crushes its competition in Europe, with the big standouts (Lufthansa, Swiss, Turkish, Austrian) while Sky Team has mostly second rate carriers Air France and Alitalia, along with the better KLM.. I’ve flown all of these and speak from experience. One World would be second best, with massive British Airways and American covering so many destinations just between them, along with very high-quality carriers like Qatar, often
Domestic Airlines: Despite a horrific hurricane season that caused major weather disruptions, 2017 has seen improvements for air travels, with less complaints filed through the third quarter than in the previous year, and on time performance is quickly improving as well. But the reality is that among the major carriers, all are subject to the same issues afflicting the industry: weather, maintenance and overscheduled hub and spoke connections. Flyers tend to be fiercely loyal, but the reality is that no matter what airline you fly, sooner or later you will have an issue. What matters is how the airline handles it. In my experience the customer service is led by United, closely followed by American, with Delta a distant third according to forbes.com.
I flew about the same amount on American and United this year, dramatically reducing my Delta flights after a series of bad/inexcusable experiences over the last two years, and I am happy to say that I think I have finally put flying Delta behind me for good, having divested myself first of the lounge program (though they have good lounges) and also of my elite frequent flier status, which I held for years, but was never appreciated in anyway by the airline.
Both American and United did a good job in terms of the basics, but two things gave United the decided edge. First, when there is an issue, they are consistently most eager to get ahead and take responsibility. A couple of years ago I was on a flight from Newark to Delhi that got cancelled after boarding, but before we got off, the pilot announced that they had added an additional flight the next day just for our plane – and substantially earlier in the day – so everyone could keep their seats and didn’t have to wait around all day. Staff was outside to provide hotel rooms and meal vouchers, and bonus credits were issued for future travel. No one likes to spend the night at an airport, but as we disembarked, people were strangely quite and accepting, because they realized the airline had done all it could and handled the situation extremely well.
That wasn’t a fluke, and I’ve seen it continue. Earlier this year I was flying to Telluride (Montrose) and my final leg was delayed for winter weather and United happily booked me a room at the Denver Airport Westin – the best hotel there by far (I ended up making it to Telluride) – even though they didn’t have to. Just last week I got a $150 credit from United towards future travel because the WiFi on my Denver to Honolulu flight didn’t work. In reality, the absence of slow, costly paid WiFi inconveniences a relatively small number of customers, since the entertainment system – including United’s best in the nation on-demand wireless – still worked – but they apologized needlessly and made it right, for all passengers in all classes. That’s more than I’ve seen other carriers do.
The other big differentiator for frequent flyers is upgrades. United gives them at no cost, and I get them regularly, while American requires you to earn and then cash in 500-mile certificates, and despite trying repeatedly, I was largely unable to use these all year long, and feel like I will die with a stack of unused “upgrades.” I successfully upgraded once early in the year, but it was an isolated experience, whereas I get upgraded on United around half the time, for free, with Platinum status on both (though to be fair American downgrades the levels of precious metals it uses, so Platinum is more like United’s Gold, but then again, when I was Gold on United I still got upgraded far more than on American as Platinum).
Where American really shines is for its three class trans-continental service, one of the few domestic routes mirroring international premium service, whereas most domestic “First class” is actually below business class and lacks sleeper seats. On New York to LA and San Francisco, American’s First is a small private cabin with just 10 seats and an exclusive experience, plus nicer lounges than the normal Admirals and private check-in and expedited security, but this all serves a small niche of travelers.
According to the reports published in forbes.com in terms of the non-legacy carriers, Southwest continues to offer a solid value proposition and general efficiency, but I personally can’t get behind their cattle-style boarding, while their frequent connections (more than other carriers) penalize customers who pay for “better seats” when the airline itself is at fault and late and the connection tight. In addition, I’ve found counter personnel surpassingly gruff and non-helpful for an airline that prides itself on a sense of humor and doing things differently, and personally I avoid flying them when possible. On the other hand, Jet Blue continues to shine with better service, better seating and better freebies, and for luxury passengers, has quietly rolled out lay flat seats on more domestic routes than its bigger competitors. I have a friend who had been a loyal high-tier Delta frequent flyer out of San Francisco who did a few transcontinental multi-city legs on Jet Blue this year just because of the premium Mint class on those routes and loved it (and likely won’t go back). In my poll, Jet Blue crushed the competition for Best Inflight & Customer Service and the airline has also has been ranked best for Customer Service for several years running by J.D. Power & Associates, while a recent Popular Mechanics analysis also named them Best Customer Service.
Winners: Jet Blue, United, American
Foreign Carriers: For me the two big aviation stories of the year are airlines that have quickly catapulted themselves up into the top tier, Turkish Airlines and Aer Lingus, and the broad expansion of international flights out of smaller and more user-friendly US airports.
Turkish Airlines was the big winner of 2017, and to the surprise of many frequent travelers, actually serves more international destinations than any other carrier in the world. It took four awards in the most prestigious airline competition, the 2017 World Airlines Awards by Skytrax, including Best Food and Best Lounges. In my poll, Turkish was heralded across the board for its premium, class, economy class, food, lounges and value. Many European airlines including KLM, Lufthansa and Aer Lingus have successfully taken the tact of positioning their hubs as easier alternatives to painfully overcrowded Heathrow, the world’s busiest airport, but Turkish goes a step further. Its Istanbul base serves as an efficient hub for both Europe, Asia and Africa that is significantly better located for longer haul travel from the US. In most cases, passengers changing anywhere in Europe face a short overnight flight where even in lay flat premium class it is difficult to get much rest before arriving and changing to another long leg. But on Turkish, you often get a longer first leg, with full night’s sleep and shorter second leg because you have already traveled further. I flew the airline this year to Kenya and back, via Istanbul, and just the routing was far superior to any of my previous trips via Europe on British Airways, Virgin or Air France. Onboard, the service is fabulous, and the business class product exceeds that of the vast majority of carriers, including all our domestic ones, with modern well designed lay flat seating, good entertainment and standout food, including lots of Mediterranean specialties, with a chef on board and bar in the front of the business class cabin. In Part 1, I discussed how Turkish has the best lounge network of any carrier, and its flagship in Istanbul is awesome. In addition, earlier this year the airline announced its latest upgrade, “Exclusive Drive,” with complimentary private chauffeured ground transfers in both directions for business class passengers in nine US cities and across the globe, something only a small handful of luxury carriers emulate. I wrote about this program in detail when it was introduced, and the upshot is that between in-flight service, lounges and limos, Turkish is among the very best in the world for Business Class, also offers great value and service in economy, and goes pretty much everywhere. Turkish won several awards in my poll, including Worlds’ Most Improved Airline.
Aer Lingus was the other big success story of 2017, following an acquisition by the parent company of British Airways and Iberia and significant reinvestment. The once budget carrier significantly upgraded its business class offerings, which I just experienced last month, with really well designed and ergonomic brand new lay flat seats that have more storage and work space than most competitors, easily accessible outlets and USB ports, even a dedicated shoe storage cubby I haven’t seen elsewhere. I like the Irish-focus of onboard food which sets the mood, and the airline’s hub in Dublin is sort of the opposite of Turkish’s Istanbul, the closest and shortest flight to any hub in Europe. They have a nice revamped lounge there and also added a “Revival” arrivals lounge for early morning coffee and showers, a great touch for those headed to Ireland. Shannon and Dublin are the only European airports with US custom preclearance, so when you get back home you just walk out of the domestic terminal and go home, saving time overall. For all these reasons Aer Lingus is suddenly very much worth considering for European travel, and on top of all these bells and whistles, the inflight crew and customer service on my recent trip was the single best of any flight I have ever taken anywhere in the world – and that is really saying something – bowling us over with their friendliness.
Furthermore, Aer Lingus, along with rapidly expanding respected budget carrier Norwegian, is changing the face of trans-Atlantic flying for many Americans by bringing affordable and accessible non-stop international routes – often for the first time – to much smaller U.S. markets like Providence, Hartford, and New York’s Stewart Airport. For example, both Aer Lingus and Norwegian now go from Hartford, a great Northeastern alternative to the much more crowded big airports that surround it, and Norwegian doesn’t just fly to Norway, I have friends in Colorado who used them to go to Croatia via London.
I flew several other major carriers in 2017, including Lufthansa, where I had the usual experience: frustration getting through to anyone on the phone and trying to book an actual seat, then a great experience at the airport and some of the best lounges in the business, and solidly reliable inflight service. I flew British Airways in a mix of business and economy class to Thailand and back, and found the lay flat premium seating – which the airline invented and introduced in the first pace- somewhat dated, and the economy cabin merely average, but still love the flagship Heathrow lounge and its spa and massages. I once again got stuck flying Air Canada across North America, and immediately regretted it. In the past couple of years I’ve flown them in business class overseas and coach to Canada, and if I never fly them again it will be too soon, as each experience seems to be worse than the one before. This time my return flight got cancelled last minute and their lounge in the Toronto hub is just depressing forbes.com further added.
Winners: Turkish Airlines, Aer Lingus, Americans living in smaller markets
Losers: Air Canada