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Video: Zagat’s 2008 airline survey

TODAY contributor
updated 11/24/2008 10:49:43 AM ET 2008-11-24T15:49:43

With a few notable exceptions, the results of this year’s Zagat Airlines Survey reveal that passengers are seething over being charged for every amenity and enduring delays and deprivation on many domestic U.S. flights.

As evidence, consider a few outtakes from the survey:

  • “Next they’ll charge for using the air vents, seat belts and bathrooms.”
  • “Domestic economy is a mobile prison lacking the food and the exercise yard.”
  • “Just another cattle car, but the cows usually get more respect.”
  • “Trying hard to encourage us to drive.”

“Those outtakes say a lot about how people are feeling,” said Tim Zagat, co-founder and chief executive officer of Zagat Survey, which rates and reviews airlines, restaurants, hotels and entertainment spots all over the world. “The airlines are nickel-and-diming people for things, like asking them to pay for their bags. People are angry.”

This year’s airlines survey did have its bright spots, though. For domestic flights, travelers singled out JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and Continental Airlines as their three favorite large airlines when flying economy or coach. And travelers chose Continental, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines as their top three large domestic airlines when flying first or business class.

Some midsized domestic airlines also stood out as impressive. The top three for economy class were Midwest Airlines, Virgin America and Hawaiian Airlines, and the top three for first and business class were Virgin, Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines.

Fewer people flying
Zagat noted that newer airlines, such as Virgin America and JetBlue, have two principle advantages over more established airlines: newer airplanes that are less expensive to operate because they’re more fuel-efficient; and newer, happier crews who have not yet been through cycles of potentially contentious negotiations over labor contracts.

“The airlines that do the best also tend to have good management … and good entertainment,” Zagat said. “On JetBlue flights, for example, you have entertainment in back of the seat in front of you, so when you’re sitting delayed on the runway and you could be stewing, instead you’re sitting there being entertained.”

The Zagat Airlines Survey relied on feedback from 9,950 frequent fliers and travel professionals, who rated 85 major airlines and 27 U.S. airports on a 30-point scale. The average survey participant took 16.3 flights in the past year.

Overall, the average ratings, factoring in comfort, service and food scores, rose slightly from last year for both domestic and international flights. The survey also indicated that people flew less in the past year.

“That’s the first time that we’ve ever seen that,” Zagat said. “During most of the past year, the price of air travel has been going up because of fuel costs, leading to dramatically higher ticket prices. Traffic went down .…

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“During that same time, service seems to have gone up a little bit. Maybe it’s easier to give people decent service when there are fewer of them.”

Domestic flights have ‘gotten to be buses’
As for the ranking of airports, the top three were Tampa International Airport, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and Denver International Airport. The bottom three were LaGuardia Airport in New York, Miami International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport.

“The busier the airport, the lower its ranking,” Zagat said. “As you get into the bottom, you’re talking about very heavy-duty airports .… People’s favorite airports are nice and big and not too crowded, and the signs are easy to see and follow.”

In this year’s survey, Singapore Airlines stood out as the best-rated international airline for both economy class and first and business class.

“With Singapore, you’re talking about an airline that is simply out-flying everybody else,” Zagat said. “They seem to know who you are from the moment you get on the plane. They help you, they smile at you, they give you a hot towel. They practically give you a pedicure before the flight takes off.”

Rounding out the top three for international airlines were Emirates Airline and Air New Zealand for economy class and Cathay Pacific Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways for first and business class.

“For most international airlines, the reason they’re so good is that they’re working with much less expensive staff and their countries fund them,” Zagat said. “Plus, any international flight is going to do more for you. Those flights are at least six to seven hours, and they have to feed you …

“But many domestic flights are typically two hours or less. They’ve gotten to be buses, and that’s all they are.”

For complete results from the Zagat Airlines Survey, visit Zagat.com/airline.

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