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.
The World's Best Airlines
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."
Then there is the staff. On Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, onboard food and beverage managers help pair wines to the dishes. On most U.S. airlines -- if dishes are served at all -- the flight attendant pushing your meal cart down the aisle may ask you if you want a Jack Daniels or Budweiser with your meal.
A lot of the differences have to do with the intangible pleasantries that come with good service. Overseas, emphasis is placed on exceptional service.
Compare that to the United States, where "the flight attendants are here primarily for your safety," said Gary Leff, who writes the View from the Wing blog.
The Best Airlines
Thai Airways first class passengers have a private check-in lounge, are escorted through private immigration, taken by golf cart to the lounge and then escorted later to their plane.
"It is truly someone else's problem to worry. You don't even know what gate you are leaving out of," Leff said. "Their whole purpose is to make sure you are taken care of."
Elite passengers here do get to skip a few lines but generally, Leff said, "you watch the departure board and show up at the boarding gate and fight the masses onto the plane."
The Asian and Middle Eastern airlines do have some advantages that let them offer such amenities and service. Several are government-subsidized as a matter of pride. Many operate in areas where food, fuel and salaries are cheaper. For instance, British Airways -- currently dealing with a strike by its cabin staff -- pays flight attendants two to three times what Singapore Airlines does, according to Skytrax's Plaisted. At those rates, you can hire a larger to staff to ensure that check-in lines are short and passengers get prompt drink refills.
"Ever see a 60-year-old flight attendant on Singapore Airlines?" said George Hobica, president of airfarewatchdog.com. "Asian airlines aren't restricted by fair hiring laws; they can pay staff less -- especially younger staff, and younger workers take fewer sick days. U.S. airlines are saddled with paying for their employees' health insurance plans; not so in most Asian countries."
Asian airlines also have younger fleets, Hobica said, requiring less maintenance, which reduces repair costs and results in fewer delays and cancelled flights. Those savings can be put into a better product and more innovation.
Skytrax List of Best Airlines
So here is Skytrax's list of the world's 10 best airlines:
1: Asiana Airlines
2: Singapore Airlines
3: Qatar Airways
4: Cathay Pacific
5: Air New Zealand
6: Etihad Airways
7: Qantas Airways
9: Thai Airways
10: Malaysia Airlines