What US airlines should learn from the world’s best carriers

CNN  — 

When the annual Skytrax ranking of the world’s best airlines were released on Tuesday, there were, to no one’s surprise, no US carriers among the top.

Try as they might, airlines in the United States have been mostly absent from the Skytrax rankings for years, so 2017’s prizes were handed to a familiar list of international players.

Qatar Airways was named airline of the year, while Turkish Airlines, Etihad Airways, Qantas and Thai Airways picked up other globally focused awards. [Click through the gallery above to see the other winners]

Skytrax’s rankings are, put simply, a reflection of passenger satisfaction – they’re made after exhaustive surveys of actual fliers. More than 300 world airlines are evaluated on everything from websites and staff language skills, to the efficiency of the aircraft boarding process and the temperature and comfort of the cabins.

Not being on the list doesn’t necessarily equate to being at the bottom – airlines in America, despite recent bad headlines, are hardly the worst in the world. There are simply other carriers whose standards, by virtue of customer service culture, variety of amenities, or continued innovation, easily exceed those of US air companies.

So what can US airlines learn from this year’s Skytrax winners?

Diversity, respect and support

Etihad Airways: Recognized for the best First Class catering.

Several international carriers, including Etihad Airways and Singapore Airlines, go above what’s required in training airport staff and cabin crew. The usual safety and task instructions are supplemented with classes on etiquette.

These lessons focus on responding with empathy and respect across cultures, helping airline guests feel welcome and building crew confidence.

Flight attendants learn the meaning of the Indian head shake, for example, and how to graciously guide passengers through formalities, such as the filling out of immigration forms in a language foreign to them, without embarrassment.

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines was the only US airline to win Skytrax awards this year, ranking tops for “best airline staff in North America” and “best regional airline in North America.” Alaska’s heavy focus on the Pacific Northwest and its role as a lifeline to rural communities often ignored by other airlines inspires loyalty, which is often rewarded with neighborly, friendly service from airline staff.

Reviews from employees on Indeed.com note that though schedules and weather can be challenging, these are made up for with generous company benefits, learning and advancement opportunities, and the got-your-back reassurance that “the company does not take its workers for granted.”

It’s worth noting that Virgin America, a repeat winner of Skytrax awards in previous years, including best airline in North America in 2015 and 2016, is being folded into Alaska Airlines following a merger of the companies that began early in 2016.

Air Canada rises to claim the abandoned pedestal, taking the Skytrax 2017 title for “best airline in North America.”

No detail is too small

EVA Air: Ranked best for cabin cleanliness.

You’d be surprised at how much difference a wet wipe makes.

Airlines such as Qatar Airways, ranked best in the world overall by Skytrax for 2017, and EVA Air, tops for cabin cleanliness, provide small sleep kits of eye mask, earplugs, toothbrush and toothpaste in all classes, plus a pre-meal cleansing amenity, whether a hot towel in First or Business, or a packaged, “refreshing cloth” in Economy.

Wipes are available throughout the flight as well, for passengers to clear their tray tables, clean up little spills, or simply to squirrel away for later use.

This seemingly worthless nicety can quickly become an image saver. When they’re ripping it open to wipe away sweat before an important meeting, fliers will appreciate the fact that such extras have not been lost to cost-cutting, as they have on US airlines.

A Qatar Airways Boeing 777-300 is moved on the Tarmac of Le Bourget airport on June 18, 2017 on the eve of the opening of the International Paris Air Show.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt are among several countries that suspended ties with Qatar last week, including the suspension of all flights to and from Doha and an airspace ban on Qatar Airways.  / AFP PHOTO / ERIC PIERMONT        (Photo credit should read ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images)
Qatar Airways named best airline of 2017
00:55 - Source: CNN

Quantity of meals, quality of food, and the options for purchasable on-board refreshments are also hugely important to the Skytrax surveys, and these are categories where US airlines all fall well under the mark.

It’s only recently that the big three – American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines – have reintroduced complimentary meals in all classes on their lengthiest domestic routes, flights averaging six hours between the East and West coasts. Shorter routes are subjected to a meager beverage service and uninspired buy-on-board snacks.

The highest-ranked, full-service Skytrax airlines nonetheless manage to offer meals on all routes, even if it’s only a packaged juice and sandwich on the two-hour hop from Chiang Mai to Phuket, as does Bangkok Airways, ranked 2017’s “best regional airline” by Skytrax.

Air France, KLM, Austrian Airlines and British Airways, all recipients of 2017 Skytrax awards, have particularly focused on innovating in this area.

Passengers flying even on the cheapest tickets have the option of paying a small amount to “upgrade” their complimentary economy meals to larger, chef-designed, more nutritionally balanced meal trays.

If an extra $30 could see that tiny, congealed, Economy Class rectangle of pasta replaced with a fresh and satisfying, thoughtfully produced dinner, would you pay for it?

Even having the option speaks for an airline’s consideration of its customers and their diversity of needs and tastes.

Consistency over confusion

Emirates: A consistent in-flight offering.

Thanks to mergers and ever-evolving fleets at the major US airlines, passengers have come to expect the unexpected, and not in a positive way.

One day fliers may be relaxing in a cushy, wide seat with plenty of legroom, only to connect to another plane of the same airline with thinner seats and elbow fights over armrests.

Some have seat-back entertainment screens with USB plugs for charging devices, and some do not. Some have relaxing cabin lighting and personal air vents, and some do not.

Some have larger overhead bins designed to accommodate many carry-on bags, some do not (and then you’re checking your bag at the gate, a frustrating experience topped with sudden anxiety for its handling and hopeful arrival at your destination).

All of the top five airlines in the Skytrax 2017 rankings – Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, ANA, Emirates and Cathay Pacific – have huge international route networks for which they favor newer aircraft (Boeing 777-300ERs, Boeing 787s, Airbus A380s and Airbus A350s, for example).

These feature mostly consistent on-board experiences where passengers can expect on-board power, entertainment systems and newer seats.