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The Best Big Airlines to Fly

Discovering which is tops isn't easy: Here are the facts to help you pick

Their ads brag that there's something special in the air, and in 1995 the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) agreed. American Airlines won top carrier honors--as it has for four of the last five years. Southwest, which got top marks in the 1994 survey, slipped into second place (see "Comparing America's Big Airlines," opposite page ).

The statisticians at NIAR, based at Wichita State University, have been rating airline performances since 1991. The scores are based on 19 weighted factors including such things as mishandled baggage, average cost per seat-mile, and on-time performance. The numbers are crunched according to a complicated formula and--voila--an "airline quality rating" is produced. Maybe the search for the best airline in the sky should end there.

Or maybe not. There are other players in the airline rating business, which like the skies, seems to be getting ever more crowded. Condé Nast Traveler conducts an annual survey of its readers' travel preferences. J. D. Power and Associates, a market research firm that annually canvasses business travelers, gave top marks to Delta and TWA in a 1993 survey. And in 1995, the Zagat survey, whose 30-point scale is gospel to discerning diners, weighed in as well.

Of the consumer preference surveys, the Zagat survey is the most comprehensive. Over 9,000 respondents were asked to evaluate airlines on the basis of comfort, service, timeliness, and food. Only one American carrier (Midwest Express) made it into the survey's top 10 of international and domestic airlines. The top three: Singapore Airlines, Swissair, and Cathay Pacific. Among domestic carriers, the Zagat survey rated Midwest tops, followed by Alaska Airlines, Kiwi International, and American.

So how should you choose your carrier? It depends on where you're going and what matters most to you. If, say, you've got to be in Seattle in the morning for a meeting, it's good to know that American--followed by United and Delta--bumps the fewest unwilling passengers. Southwest, Northwest, and American have the best on-time rates. If you're off to the beach and you only plan to wear your bikini, you might not care that the carriers with the best baggage-handling scores are Southwest, America West, and American.

Southwest, American, and America West have the newest fleets. The average age of a Southwest plane is 8.62 years. TWA, Northwest, and Continental have the oldest. The average age of a TWA jet is 19.38 years.

For finicky flyers, amenities matter. Delta is non-smoking, even on international flights. It's hard to imagine choosing a carrier based on the airline's food. Zagat's respondents, however, found Kiwi's food "surprisingly good," and some travelers rejoiced that Alaska serves meals one "actually wants to eat." If you're fasting or dieting, try Southwest. It offers literally peanuts.

Many passengers, of course, opt for the cheapest fare, the one element not considered in the NIAR ranking because the market is constantly changing. But the Zagat survey concludes that Midwest Express, Alaska Airlines, and Kiwi International offer the best value.

Every flyer's paramount concern, of course, is safety. In that respect, 1994, the last year for which data were available as this book went to press, was not the best of years: 30 commercial airplanes crashed and 264 lives were lost. (In 1993, there were 32 commercial crashes, but only 25 deaths.)

So, which airlines are the safest? Generally, according to experts quoted in Newsweek, the odds of death are greater on commuter airlines. After calculating the odds of dying on one of the major carriers based on deaths in the past decade, Newsweek's experts concluded that American, Southwest, and TWA were the safest on domestic flights. But the statistics can be easily misconstrued. As the NIAR study notes, in 1994 only one in about 1.7 million passengers died in a commercial airline accident--and that was a bad year. (Over the past decade, the chance of being killed while flying was approximately one in 3 million.) Look at it another way: in 1994, it was 2.5 times more likely that you would be struck by lightning than die in an airplane crash.

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