The Ten Best Airplanes to Fly
A pilot rates both airlines and his favorite rides in the sky, updated 2019
By Jamie Kimmel
What’s the worst plane ever? What’s the best passenger aircraft in the world? What are the best commercial planes in service? What’s the best airline to fly, or the best airline in the world?
For this, we turned to an expert in all things aeronautical, and here are some of his answers.
We 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 today.
Traveling with a Small Dog:
We learned that Asian airlines seem to have the best reputations while American airlines tend to have the worst. Here are Smith’s choices and 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.
In 2019’s Sktraxx rankings, Qatar is number 1, followed by Singapore, ANA All Nippon Airways, and Cathay Pacific.
I recently flew Qatar Airways business class and found it surprisingly disappointing.”
“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 in-flight 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.”
Here is Smith’s take. “The thing is, though, I’ve flown on Qatar Airways. Twice, actually. Two trips and four separate legs, on 777, A380, and A350 aircraft.
All in the carrier’s highly touted business class — also deemed by Skytrax, in a separate award, as “Best in the World.” So that was the best cabin in the world, on the best airline in the world. Supposedly.
And that’s where Skytrax and I part ways. I think maybe Qatar is one of those carriers who’ve built an identity around presumably being the best, rather than actually being it.
While they offer a good product, my own experiences show it to be overrated. It’s a case, maybe, of a reputation preceding you — something we see a lot in the airline business.”
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.
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 is very attentive to passengers. Also, the entertainment is quite diverse as most flights are international thus need to accommodate to a variety of cultural preferences.
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.
Smith said that the controls for their inflight entertainment are frustrating to use and that meals aren’t served on a regular schedule in business class. You have to summon the staff to get food and snacks.
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. They have 13 Airbus A380s on order for the future.
Singapore Airlines: The Best Airline to Fly?
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 legroom and the in-flight entertainment is lacking. Also regardless of the aircraft model, Singapore is a bit on the pricey side. However, they were the first airline to use the double-decker Airbus A380.
They offer four different classes: Full-sized suites, first-class, business, and economy. They even published a cookbook of their culinary delights and more featured on the planes. Singapore boasts a mix of all of the top wide-body jets.
“History’s most award-winning carrier, Singapore Airlines was the Skytrax winner of “World’s Best Airline” for 2018. It was formed in the early 1970s when Malaysia-Singapore Airlines split into two carriers: today’s Singapore Airlines (SQ) and the star-crossed Malaysia Airlines (MH)” Patrick wrote on his blog.
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 in-flight 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.
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 the 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 they have now introduced 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. In 2018, Embraer is now 80 percent owned by Boeing, the US planemaker.
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 legroom 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 a while 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 plane’s amenities being broken occasionally (chair lean and TV).
Smith weighed in on his opinions of Delta Airlines’ current 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 on 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 on 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 777 are more reliable than the four-engine monster A380. No US airline flies this big plane, and it’s not likely to change anytime soon.
This “bus” is adequately named. It is the largest passenger plane that is even a double-decker! In 2018, it was announced that Airbus will stop making the A-380 in 2021, after losing many more orders from their biggest customer, Emirates.
In 2019, Airbus announced that they were going to stop making the world’s largest passenger plane after 2021. It’s just too big, airlines have found that having a double-decker plane requires special jetways and the thing is just too big to fill up. Most airlines are opting for the A350 instead.
“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.
Cozy and Ensconced
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 calls 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, the 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.
This is Airbus’s replacement for the giant A380, and it’s no slouch in terms of size, offering 366 passengers in three different classes, and much-improved fuel economy.
The A350 is like Goldilocks’ bowl of porridge–just the right size and price.
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 touchscreen.
It also another quiet ride. The A320 is currently undergoing some improvements to enhance the flyer’s experience.
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!) cupholders, 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.”
During Hartshorne’s flight to Japan on a Boeing 787, he noticed that in all of the lavatories there are bidets like you find all over Japan. Refreshing!
Boeing MD88 and MD80
These are Delta’s workhorse planes and were built in the 1980s. Delta currently has 79 MD-88s and 37 MD-90s. They are to be phased out and replaced by Airbus A321-200s and Boeing 737-900ERs. Delta still has 52 of the Airbus aircraft on order but has almost received all Boeing 737s. The last of these dinosaurs will be retired this year, to live out their lives in the airplane boneyard.
More information about such questions as “should I be scared of turbulence?” visit Cockpit Confidential on Ask the Pilot
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