"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.
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.
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