Last updated: 09:34 AM ET, Tue November 03 2015

Why Can't US Airlines Offer the Same In-Flight Quality as their Asian Peers?

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | November 03, 2015

Why Can't US Airlines Offer the Same In-Flight Quality as their Asian Peers?

Photo courtesy of All Nippon Airways

Not everyone thinks the annual Skytrax ranking of “world’s best airlines” is fair and objective. However, the scores are based on flier surveys, so even if you don’t agree with the exact rankings, the list does offer a kind of general picture of how airlines perform in terms of the overall in-flight experience that they provide. 

Where are all the U.S. airlines?

One of the most striking things that you will notice if you look at this year’s top 10 (or any recent year’s top 10) is the total absence of U.S.-based airlines. United, American and Delta are nowhere to be seen. In fact, all 10 of this year’s top airlines hailed from Asia and Australia. 

Are these surveys biased in some way? Maybe they are, but even if you are a die-hard fan of American Airlines, you have to admit that their overall in-flight experience does not compare to the experience you will have in a similar cabin class on any of the world’s highest-rated carriers.  

A side-by-side comparison

Trans-Pacific trips are, more-or-less, an annual occurrence for me. This usually means flying across the ocean on American, Delta or United and then catching a flight on one of their allies from an East Asian hub (Narita, Hong Kong Int’l, Bangkok) to my final destination. 

Flying ANA, Cathay or Thai after spending 12 hours on a U.S. legacy carrier is illuminating. The food is noticeably better on the Asian airline. The cabin staff is unfailingly polite, the seats seem bigger, there are more entertainment options and the personal seat-back screen always, always works.   

So why can’t U.S. airlines offer this same level of quality? 

According to the Wall Street Journal, part of the reason for the lagging quality of U.S. legacy carriers has to do with … legacy. After deregulation, U.S. airlines were, for lack of a better word, stuck with high crew salaries, union contracts, an aging workforce and expensive pensions. These things might make for a fairer working environment, but they also weigh U.S. airlines down with extra costs and staff that cannot be told to “move on” if they don’t meet expectations. 

Asian airlines, on the other hand, don’t have to deal as much with these extra costs or employment rules. Plus, their passenger numbers have been growing or holding steady for the most part. 

No change on the horizon

The expectation was that the world’s top-rated carriers would come back to earth a little bit with the rise of low cost airlines. That hasn’t really happened yet. While LCCs have taken off in Asia in a big way, their shoestring strategy means that high passenger numbers don’t necessarily lead to a bigger piece of the profit pie. Also, except for a couple of the big players (AirAsia, for one), the region’s low cost brands are actually owned by some of the aforementioned Top 10 carriers (Singapore Airlines owns Tigerair and Qantas owns Jetstar, for example). 

Cost still matters

There are good reasons for U.S. carriers’ low flier satisfaction scores. It goes beyond “they are just not as good” or “they don’t try as hard.” Legacy issues will continue to keep Western airlines from achieving Asian airline-like quality.

If you are like me, however, the deciding factor in which airline you end up flying is often price. As long as the legacies can beat the Top 10 when it comes to fare deals, it will be hard for fliers to justify totally avoiding them. 

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