Every year, aviation research firms like Skytrax and news outlets like Forbes release their updated rankings of the world’s best airlines. These rankings take into account safety, service, cost, energy efficiency, inflight entertainment, business-class amenities, onboard catering and a half-dozen other metrics. The names that crack these top 10s often hail from the Middle East or Southeast Asia, and score well every single year.
We appreciate well-researched objectivity as much as the next prospective flyer. But sorting through spreadsheets and charts before booking a flight only adds to an already heaping helping of stress. We think a far simpler, and much more subjective factor should play a role in booking a flight: reputation.
In other words, what stories do people tell about certain airlines? What keeps them away forever, or brings them back, time and time again? To that end, we asked 15 frequent travelers, a panel of CEOs, agency heads and freelance producers: If you had your druthers, what airline would you want to fly?
The panel did crown an unsurprising winner (one airline received three votes), but there were some fascinating inclusions, and even a strong showing from the United States, which rarely scores an airline in the top 40 on those yearly rankings. Along the way, we realized that few frequent travelers actually believe their preferred airline is perfect. But they’ve traveled enough to know what they want — for some, leg room, for others, Cheez-Its — and more than any other option in the industry, that airline has delivered.
That means that this is almost certainly not a definitive ranking of the world’s best airlines. But it is a ranking of airlines that work for certain people, and as people are far more alike than we’d care to admit, there’s probably an airline in here that works for you, too.
“I flew 50 times last year alone, and my favorite airline is Air Canada. Their plane interior is clean, the service is spectacular and their flight attendants will get you any accommodations you need. The first time I flew with them, I was nauseous and resigned myself to a terrible flight experience. But the attendant noticed. She gave me refreshments and checked up periodically, offering reassurance. All the Air Canada attendants are helpful and genuine, which is why I prefer to fly with them when possible.” — John Linden, interior designer at MirrorCoop
“As a frequent traveler who has also overcome aerophobia, my absolute favorite airline is Air Mauritius. Especially when flying on one of their new Airbus A350 planes. Since I faced my fears and started flying again in 2016, I’ve flown with many different airlines to various places across the world, both domestic and international. Air Mauritius routinely checks all the boxes on essentials like safety rating, service, friendly staff, comfort, space, and food. But, for me, it was the small subtle, almost intangible aspects of the experience that really made an impression. The two Airbus A350-900’s are part of the latest generation of aircraft created by Airbus. On the way to Mauritius, we flew in “Le Morne Brabant,” while our return flight was on “Pieter Both.” I absolutely loved that they had named their aircraft after the two most famous mountains in the country. From the moment we boarded I could tell that this flight was going to be significantly different from past experiences. I was immediately impressed by how superior their product was. Air Mauritius is far than just the holiday airline I had expected.” — Daniella Schoeman, Content Strategist and Creator at Our Soulful Travels
All Nippon Airways
“I have flown over a dozen airlines across North America, Europe, and Asia and All Nippon Airways is by far the best airline in the world. I’m the Co-Founder of a Japanese specialty tea business, so I do a lot of commerce with Japan. I’ve flown different airlines across the Pacific and ANA offers the very best experience. For someone with dietary restrictions like me, ANA is the only airline where I look forward to mealtime and where they respect my preferences. Their meals were actually voted on and chosen by their customers. The crew members are incredibly friendly, just like you would expect from the Japanese people. The cherry on the sunday is that you get to drink real Japanese green tea on board.” — Francois Mathieu, Co-Founder at Hojicha Co.
“I’m a freelance producer, corporate event planner, and creative consultant who travels a lot for work. My favorite airline for travel is Alaska. I sometimes travel with a lot of video equipment, and hate paying baggage fees. But Alaska makes it worth your while! They have a guarantee that your checked bags will be at baggage claim within 20 minutes of your plane’s arrival at the gate. And if they’re not there by that time, Alaska gives you a $25 discount code for use on a future flight, or 2,500 bonus miles. I’ve waited upwards of 45 minutes for checked bags on other airlines. With Alaska, I know they’ll be there within a reasonable amount of time, and I can get on to my meeting or production shoot without delay.” — Shane Allen, www.ShaneAllen.tv
“I’ve traveled on Emirates quite a bit. And I’m continually impressed with the level of service you get for more or less the same price you’d pay at other airlines. Emirates is also upgrading their planes to maintain a young fleet, the food in all classes is very good (even in economy) and business/first on the A380 is exceptional. There are even bars located on the top level, and showers in first class. Not to mention, I’m 6’2″ and the seats are great for folks on the taller side.” — Anthony Tianco, travel blogger at The Travel Tart
“I fly 50+ times a year, and while Delta is my preferred airline in terms of comfort, I consider Frontier to be the best airline in the industry. Flying is a commodity, and Frontier can get me from point A to point B for 25% of the cost in many cases. Flying Frontier has already saved me approximately $3,000 so far this year. I’ll admit, the comfort isn’t up to Delta’s standards, but I can suck it up for a few hours to save that kind of cash. Pro Tip: Frontier assigns seats from the back of the plane to the front, so check-in the day before to get a better seat.” — Jack Wight, CEO at BuybackBoss.com
“This may surprise people, but if I am traveling to the Caribbean, I love Jetblue. The service is always excellent, the departures are on-time, and the snacks are decent — think Cheez-Its, cookies, etc. They go above and beyond every time I travel with them, and because I live in Florida they have flights to all the places I regularly visit.” — Courtnie Nichols, owner of boutique travel company TravelBash
“I love to travel on JetBlue, any chance I get. They really are the friendliest and most accommodating airline today. I love their full sized snacks and always look forward to those darn Cheez-Its! Seats are a cross between economy and first class, which I appreciate. I have had many instances where I need to change my flights last minute, and their staff is always super accommodating. I appreciate their genuine willingness to be helpful.
The last time I called in I was on the verge of missing my flight. So I asked if there was any way at all they could call or communicate with the gate to let them know I’d be right under the wire, and although the agent was willing to help, the flight had just been marked delayed. All was well, and I made my flight. In a world where everyone is making you jump through hoops in one way or another, JetBlue is just so easy.” — Lucia E. Robles, President and Co-Founder at Lucia & Co
“I’ve been running my own business for the past few years. Due to my work obligations, I have to travel frequently and my favorite airline so far has been Lufthansa. It is by far one of the most secure airlines I’ve flown with, plus it has great customer support. Once my flight was delayed due to a heavy storm and we couldn’t tell when or if it would depart that day. Unlike other airlines which are sometimes oblivious in these situations, the Lufthansa staff made sure to keep us posted and did so with a lot of respect. I also love its flight attendants. They’re experienced, relaxed and discreet so that you can truly wind down during long flights.” — Josh Wardini, Co-Founder at Serpwatch
“My favorite airline is without question Singapore Airlines. Their service is unrivaled, and they’re always willing to go the extra mile to make sure you have an unforgettable flying experience. My husband and I flew them first class on our anniversary and the crew went over the top to make sure we had a special flight. They served us a special anniversary cake and brought out a giant card signed by the entire crew. What really impressed me was that they hand-stitched our names to little teddy bears while on the flight. I love a lot of other aspects of flying with Singapore Airlines such as the dining, but I’ve yet to fly another airline that is as dedicated to making you feel special as Singapore Airlines.” — Daniel Gillapsia, founder of the travel blog, UponArriving.com
“I’ve racked up time in more than 500 airports in the last 5 years alone, so have some strong opinions on this. The winner has got to be Southwest Airlines. Here’s why:
- You know when you buy a movie ticket and you think, “$14 is kind of high, but ok.”? Then, you go through check out and that one ticket is $20 by the time all the fees are added in and click to purchase? That is infuriating to me. Just tell me the whole price by itself! Southwest doesn’t do that, and saves you from the frustrating “airline ticket math” game.
- My schedule is constantly changing and I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to re-route or change my return date in the middle of a trip. Sometimes even the same day. I very much appreciate that I can make last minute changes and only have to pay the difference in airfare. I won’t ever forget the trauma of a Delta flight three years ago. I was booked for a last minute interview at the tail end of my trip and needed to get to Chicago instead of straight home. They wanted to charge me $200 for a change fee, PLUS the difference in airfare. I was baffled. It was better for me to just buy a whole new ticket and not use the original one. I’ve never flown Delta since.
- As far as frequent flier programs go, I love that I can show up the day of my flight and get at the top of the standby list as an A-lister. Don’t forget Companion Pass. It’s WELL worth it! Easiest to use through the airline credit card, but we save THOUSANDS of dollars with companion pass every year!
- Let’s talk about the very controversial seating issue. Some people really get spun up about open seating. Me? I love it! If I pay the extra on one of “those other airlines” for a seat I want, I have no idea who I’m going to be sitting by. With open seating, I can case the passengers and decide who will talk to me the least, will have the best hygiene, and the most important … WON’T “manspread!” Is there anything worse than being scrunched up against the window with a sleeping stanger’s elbow and knee pinning you in? No. The answer is “no.”
— Kristin Benton, founder of Adventure Alchemy, LLC
“My favorite airline is Southwest. I have flown them all, and more and more, it seems all airlines are delayed and late. Southwest is legitimately sorry if something goes wrong, and proactively tries to make it right. I recently had a delayed Southwest flight that left late and once we landed, was stuck on the ground due to lightning. Once we finally got off the plane, it took another hour for our luggage to arrive. In addition to being exhausted, I was traveling with a toddler who was in good spirits but out way past his bedtime. The next morning when I checked my email, I had an email from Southwest apologizing for the delay and offering a $100 flight voucher for the inconvenience. I don’t even have status on Southwest and they were proactive in offering me a reason to return.” — Kristina Portillo, founder of BusinessTravelLife.com
“I have flown many airlines, but my favorite airlines are from the Middle East. And of Qatar, Etihad and Emirates, I prefer flying with Qatar Airways. The leg space in economy is larger than what most airlines offer, they serve a three-course meal, and portions are huge. The reward system is also very extensive; even if you don’t go for reward tickets/hotel stays, they have a huge catalogue of products which, compared to others (especially Turkish Airlines) have a great return (in terms of points spent for the value of the product). The first time I flew with Qatar was in 2008, and I was literally blown away with the hospitality and reception. That standard has been more-or-less consistent over the years. — Saurabh Jindal, runs travel startup Talk Travel
“My favorite airline is Qatar Airways. I’ll never forget when I moved to Qatar at age 22 to become an English teacher and was completely daunted and filled with panic about leaving my friends and family. Somehow, after just a few hours on the Qatar Airways flight, all my anxiety dissolved and the comfortable flight made it all the easier to start a life in a new country. It encouraged me that I was entering a luxurious lifestyle that matched the flying experience. I’ve been a fan ever since and always encourage my clients to fly Qatar Airways.” — Marisa DeSalvio, founder of luxury travel agency DeSalvio Travel
“My favorite airline in this world is Qatar Airways. I took my first flight with Qatar Airways from Copenhagen to Doha and then Doha to Hong Kong. The second I entered I felt welcome and taken care of. The quality of the seats, blankets and everything is just great. The staff pays a lot of attention and are very helpful and polite. The food is also delicious. I’m a vegetarian and made sure to let them know. I didn’t expect anything from airline food, but it was delicious. For entertainment, they have a wide range of the latest movies, as well as classic movies. I enjoy it so much, that on my flight back from Southeast Asia to Europe I only wanted to fly Qatar Airways. I had to fly back to Hong Kong to get the flight. Totally worth it!” — Matt Kiefer, Founder of Hostelgeeks.com
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