Stepping on an airplane today -- especially those run by the U.S. airlines -- can seem more like a prison sentence than the start of a great journey. But hop on board an Asian or Middle Eastern airline and you are treated like royalty. Seats are larger, the food actually tastes good and the service is attentive.
Move up to first class and flight attendants are making passengers' beds, behind the doors of their private suites, with the finest linens. Pajamas are handed out along with skin care products from luxury brands like Bvlgari. And when passengers wake on one Middle East airline they can actually take a shower at 40,000 feet, ensuring they'll arrive fresh.
This stark difference in travel is highlighted in an annual ranking of the top airlines by Skytrax, a British airline consulting and research firm. Not one North American or European airline made the Skytrax list of the world's 10 best airlines.
"For the last couple of years we've seen an increasing dominance of Asian carriers and two of three of the carriers of the Middle East who have modeled themselves around the Asian carriers," said Edward Plaisted, chairman of Skytrax.
While American and European airlines are finally starting to catch up on amenities such as personal TVs and better seats, Plaisted said, the carriers still lag well behind in service.
"Across a lot of Asia there is still a genuine service culture. There is a genuine desire among the service providers, the people, to actually take pride in delivering a top quality standard," Plaisted said.
He said there are better links and respect between the employees and the employer.
"The minute I get on to a flight with Cathy Pacific, Qatar or Singapore, suddenly you are not being treated like a piece of meat," Plaisted said.
Take Cathy Pacific. If a coach passenger gets hungry at any point during a flight, they can request a bowl of instant noodles to fill them up. Contrast that with the free food you get on U.S. airlines, which typically ranges from mini-bag of salted pretzels to mini-bag of roasted peanuts. If you're hungry enough to pay, you can fork over $3.99 for a breakfast offering from American Airlines, which includes oatmeal, dried fruit and nuts.
In first class, the lavatory on Cathy Pacific is large enough to fit eight people and it has a window. On most U.S. airlines, the bathrooms more often resemble a phone booth with poor ventilation.
Asiana Airlines has down-filled duvets while some U.S. airlines now charge for pillows and blankets.
Then there is the issue of leg room.
Asiana offers 34 inches of space between one row of seats and the next in coach on its Boeing 777-200ER jets. Continental offers 31 inches.
"It's a huge difference," said Matt Daimler, founder of SeatGuru.com. "Those two or three inches don't sound like a lot but they really make a huge difference in the eyes of the customer. It's being able to open your laptop. It's being able to cross your legs. It's being able to put something in the seat-back pocket and not have it intrude upon your knees."