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The spacious bar in the double-decker Airbus A380 jumbo jet.The spacious bar in the double-decker Airbus A380 jumbo jet. Patrick Smith photos.

The Ten Best and Worst Airlines and Planes

A pilot rates both airlines and his favorite rides in the sky
 

When I was a kid my brother and I made semi annual trips from Tampa to Boston and back as we have family in both states. For as many times as I have been on a plane I would not call myself an expert. I do like to fly however.

My favorite part of traveling is the plane ride over to my destination. I have time to mentally transition myself from the comforts of home to the excitement of vacation!


I asked frequent flyer, airline pilot, and author of Cockpit Confidential, Patrick Smith for some further insight on what he considers the best and worst airplanes and airlines flying in 2014.

I learned from Mr. Smith that Asian airlines seem to have the best reputations while American airlines tend to have the worst. Here are Smith's choices and his opinions about planes.

“When you read the passenger polls, it's the same names over and over: Emirates, Qatar, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, et al. But experiences can vary flight to flight, depending on the attitudes and attentiveness of the crew. I recently flew Qatar Airways business class and found it surprisingly disappointing.”
CC PSThe cover of Cockpit Confidential by Patrick Smith. Read an excerpt from the book on GoNOMAD.
"I'm beginning to think that for all of the bad press and bad reputations duly earned by U.S. carriers, they're becoming much better.

Delta inflight is a Star

Delta Air Lines
, for example, has the best inflight entertainment system in the entire industry. At the same time, airlines like Qatar, Emirates, et al., are perhaps overrated.

It's that problem of a reputation preceding you: we expect U.S. airlines to be poor, and we expect airlines like Cathay and Qatar to be the best. Certain carriers have built their identities around presumably being the best. But are they? I'm not so sure.”

I find his power of suggestion argument pretty insightful. On a closer look I investigated what everyone (including Smith) is saying about the aforementioned airlines.

Cathay Pacific

This is the prime airline of Hong Kong and many people agree the food is fantastic. Not only the food but the seats are very comfortable. The airline flies wide body Boeing 777, 747s, and Airbus A330s and 340s.

The planes are very quiet and the staff are very attentive of passengers. Also the entertainment is quite diverse as most flights are international thus need to accommodate to a variety of cultural preferences.

Qatar Airways

Qatar has had mixed reviews. On one hand the customers love the staff overall. On the other most complain that there are not enough food or drinks served to keep people satisfied during long international flights. Some passengers love the seats, others not so much. Patrick himself said he was rather disappointed when he took a Qatar flight in business class despite hearing so many good things about the airline.  Qatar flies a range of wide body Airbus planes and Boeing 787 Dreamliners. The have 13 Airbus A380s on order for the future.

Singapore Airlines

With Singapore Airlines it seems the type of plane people fly in is what lodges most complaints among flyers. The older models do not have enough leg room and the in flight entertainment is lacking. Also regardless of aircraft model, Singapore is bit on the pricey side. However they were the first airline to use the double-decked Airbus A380. They offer four different classes: Full sized suites, first class, business and economy. They even published a cook book of their culinary delights and more featured on the planes.  Singapore boasts a mix of all of the top wide body jets.

Emirates PSEmirates in-flight entertainment*Emirates

This airline based out of Dubai, U.A.E. is known for its in flight entertainment. They were one of the first airlines to provide entertainment to passengers. They have the most channels (between 600 to 1000) to choose from than any current airline.  Their newest planes have outlets to charge electronics, docking for iPods, and inflight Wi-Fi, ranging from $2.75 for an iPhone to $7.50 for use on a laptop.

Emirates has 211 planes, the largest fleet in the world, including more A380s 50, and more Boeing 777s than any other airline.

Loyal customers have come to expect nothing but the best from this company and are rarely disappointed. Their first and business class flyers (as well as Skyward Gold members) have access to 32 lounges in 28 cities courtesy of Emirates. On their A380 the first class suites even come with two showers and a spa. First and Business classes also have access to an opulent lounge.

“All seats have a small minibar, conveniently placed USB and power ports, and a shoe locker. The window shades are electrically controlled. Emirates ICE system (Information, Communications, Entertainment) is accessed via touch-screen or through a remote-control handset. There are more than a thousand movies, television and music options to pick from (including a large number of films from India, China, and elsewhere; this is Emirates after all).”

“If you’re not an Emirates regular, you might have some trouble deciphering the workings of the various seat and ICE controls. During boarding, one of the cabin attendants sensed, quite correctly, that I had no idea what I was doing and kindly gave me a tutorial," said Smith.

Jet Blue

I personally love Jet Blue. I have been flying with them since I was 18 and I have not looked back. They do not have first class because theJet Blue HuffPOIndividual monitors for each passenger on Jet Blue.  idea is that everyone should feel comfortable on their journey. They do not disappoint either. Surprisingly they are quite affordable for what they offer. One aspect of Jet Blue that appeals to many flyers is that they employ dozens of former police officers as flight attendants.

Something nice to know in case any passengers try to get rowdy in the cabin. Jet Blue has only one type of large aircraft--the Airbus A320, and soon they will introduce Jet Blue Mint, using new Airbus A321s with lie flat beds. They also fly the Embraer 190, a Brazilian made 100 passenger jet on shorter routes.

DirecTV and free snacks like chips and nuts are available to all passengers (with TV monitors for each seat.) The middle of the plane offers slightly more leg room but I have not consciously noticed this. The seats are also extra comfy. Jet Blue started out only flying to a handful of major cities in the US but have since expanded to include international flights in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America.

It has been awhile since I have boarded a plane however and it seems in the last year loyal customers have noticed a decline in the Jet Blue experience. Perhaps because of inflation frequent travelers have expressed dissatisfaction with the lower quality of snacks and some of the planes amenities being broken occasionally (chair lean and TV).

American Airlines

I think I flew on American once and ironically, it was the only international flight I have ever made in my life. My aunt and I traveled to western Ireland as a high school graduation gift to me from her. We found the staff a little rude and impatient to hurry us off the plane. The seats were uncomfortable and it was quite cramped. Strangely they gave sealed pudding cups of water to drink instead of plastic cups (that normal people drink from).

They did serve a meal which is the only time I have ever had a free meal on a plane but I would not say it was the saving grace of the flight. In fact it felt like I was eating school cafeteria food. Apparently I am not the only one who does not like them very much. Here are some AA food reviews are from Airline Quality.

Smith drawing Delta L-1011 1975Patrick's rendition of Delta L-1011 circa 1975*Delta

Smith weighed in on his opinions of Delta's 2014 fleet, which still includes some of the oldest planes in the sky, the MD 80s that they inherited when they merged with Northwest a few years ago. No TVs, cramped seats, and what many consider the least comfortable flight experience in the sky.

“So much of this depends which class you're flying in -- first, business, economy, or one of those new "economy plus" sections -- and where, exactly, you're sitting within those sections. Some premium cabin seats are better than others; some economy seats are (a lot) better than others, even on the same aircraft. Therefore it's really impossible to say that a particular aircraft type is a better ride than another model. It depends.”

“For smoothness and susceptibility to turbulence, it mostly depends where you're sitting. It tends to be bumpiest in the very back, because you're furthest from the plane's centers of gravity and lift.”

He did have a lot to say about the Airbus A380s however. Ironically, Delta has recently stated that they would never consider the A380 because of their opinion that the two engine jumbos like the 747 are more reliable than the four-engine monster A380. No US airline flies this big plane, and it's not likely to change any time soon. 

Airbus A380

This “bus” is adequately named. It is the largest passenger plane that is even a double-decker!
“It's a disastrously ugly plane on the outside, but comfortable on the inside. It's roomy and very quiet.” says Patrick. According to his blog, he was able to order a cocktail from the plane’s bar on a business-class flight.

“The upper deck is split between 14 fully-enclosed first class suites and 76 business class cubicles in a four-across, 1-2-1 configuration. My cubicle was a window seat, left side, about midway down the cabin.”

“The seat is a full-flat sleeper with a console and minibar to one side. It’s not a totally enclosed suite like you’d find in first class, but the chair is set deeply within the cubicle. You feel cozy and ensconced, and the side console acts as a privacy barrier, putting a good deal of space between you and the aisle (or, if you’re in the center section, your closest seat-mate). Window seats have thigh-level storage compartments along the side, similar to those in the upper deck of the 747.”

“The video screen is huge and crystal clear, and the carrier’s noise-reduction headsets are the most comfortable I’ve ever worn. On the information channel passengers can choose between three different external camera views, including one from high atop the A380′s tail. Inflight Wi-Fi and mobile phone calling are available for a fee (the Wi-Fi is reasonably priced; cell calls are expensive).”

Smith’s friend describes the A380 business trips as the Vegas of flying. 

Max Hartshorne, editor of GoNOMAD, flew the A380 on Qantas, and shares Smith's view. "It's a different experience than any other plane, it feels roomier and you can walk around during a long flight," he said.  One interesting fact--it takes nearly half the fuel in the big plane just to take off, because it is so heavy.
787 PSA Boeing 787 Dreamliner's large window.
Airbus A320

This plane also part of the Airbus family, it is a smaller aircraft than the A380 and offers similar amenities. However it is designed to carry approximately 220 passengers so “smaller” is relative. Some cabins offer LED lighting options and customers can get information through a touch screen. It also another quiet ride. The A320 is currently undergoing some improvements to enhance the flyer’s experience.

Boeing 787 

Patrick Smith: “Boeing's new 787 is also very quiet, and the cabin air isn't as dry as on most commercial aircraft. JAL’s Recaro economy chairs have generous legroom, 11-inch video screens (Ethiopian’s are 15 inches!) cup holders, coat hooks, AC power ports and a USB connection.”

“If one thing gives it away, it’s the windows. The 787′s cabin windows are a good 40 percent bigger than normal. There were two hot meals and a snack service. During the in-between hours, a buffet was set up in the mid and rear galleys with snacks and bottled water.”  

Boeing MD88 and MD80

These are Delta's workhorse planes, and were built in the 1980s.  You'll find these planes flying regular domestic routes across the US and Delta's bosses are proud of how cheap they are because they're already paid for.  No new leases needed, and even with relatively terrible fuel economy, the airline is still flying them, without any TV screens, barely any legroom and a hardy crew used to flying the dogs of the sky. 

***

Being a non plane expert I have never paid attention to what type of aircraft I am flying on. I am not even sure if I can decipher that by my flight ticket or other information. Next time I need to get plane tickets I will pay close attention to see if I can figure out which model I would be taking off in.

For More information about such questions as "should I be scared of turbulence?" visit Cockpit Confidential on Ask the Pilot

Jamie Kimmel



Jamie Kimmel is currently an anthropology major at UMass Amherst.  As a very active member of the belly dance club and SPIRALS, she loves all things magickal and artistic. She writes about both of these things in more detail on her blog IamWiccanHearMeRoar






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