Tired of being stuffed into narrow jets, deprived of food and herded like cattle, frequent fliers want one thing more than any other from airlines: improved comfort, according to this year's Zagat Airline Survey.
Zagat, better known for its restaurant and hotel ratings, polled 9,394 frequent fliers, asking them to rank 46 carriers on the basis of comfort, service, on-time performance and food.
When it comes to overall comfort and convenience, foreign carriers have an advantage over domestic carriers, according to the survey.
Singapore Airlines, for example, received the highest overall score: 25.85 on Zagat's 30-point scale. A rating between 26 and 30 is ranked "extraordinary"; 20 to 25 is considered "very good to excellent." Earning a 10 to 19 is "good to very good," and 0 to 9 is "poor to fair."
Swissair was second with a 23.93 rating, followed by Cathay Pacific.
For the first time since Zagat began the biennial survey in 1990, however, a regional domestic airline cracked the Top 10. Milwaukee-based Midwest Express earned a 23.38, putting it fourth in the overall rankings, nudging out Japan Airlines at 22.96.
One reason foreign carriers appear to dominate the ratings is that they fly wide-body jets with roomier seats, said Allan Ripp, spokesman for Zagat Survey in New York. In addition, the longer flights give the airlines more opportunity to pamper passengers.
And pampering is what passengers crave most in a climate of airline cutbacks and proliferating discount carriers.
When asked what change travelers most wanted to see in air travel, comfort topped the list, with 37% of the polled travelers suggesting improvements such as wider, more comfortable seats; more leg room; more room in general, and better air circulation.
Although comfort ranked the highest, there were other complaints.
Another 17% suggested improvements in airline reliability, such as sticking to time schedules, minimizing delays, running more convenient schedules and eliminating hub systems. Almost as many (16%) wanted lower, more consistent air fares.
Improved service, such as friendlier attitudes and quicker baggage handling, was demanded by 12% of travelers, the same percentage that wished for better airline food.
Despite indications that some travelers wanted lower prices, the survey revealed overall that travelers felt air fares were a better deal than they were a few years ago. In 1990, surveyed travelers said ticket prices were "expensive," whereas in the latest survey they were labeled "medium-priced."
Although foreign carriers continued to outrank domestic carriers in overall ratings, the survey also shows that the domestic carriers are closing the gap. In 1990, for example, the difference in the average rating for all international carriers and all domestic carriers was 4.39 points. By 1994, the gap had closed to 1.87.
For example, four domestic carriers received higher ratings in 1994 compared to four years ago. Northwest rose 2.42 points, USAir was up 1.72 points, Continental rose 1.67 points and TWA advanced 1.4 points.
In contrast, only one of 15 international airlines--Virgin Atlantic--showed an overall increase in its ratings, jumping 3.33 points.
The five highest-rated domestic airlines: Midwest Express (23.38), Alaska Airlines (20.95), Kiwi International (18.95), American Airlines (18.16) and Delta (18.10).
As it has in all three of Zagat's surveys, Russia's Aeroflot earned the lowest ranking, garnering a 5.99. One survey respondent did note, however, that the no-nonsense attendants should be praised for knowing "how to subdue raving drunks and repair broken seats."
The airlines will get another go at ratings this May when California-based J.D. Powers & Associates releases the results of its annual airline survey.
Whereas the Zagat survey is intended for consumer use and the results will be published in the company's updated "U.S. Hotel, Resort and Spa Survey," the J.D. Powers survey is intended for internal use by the airlines.
J.D. Powers sells the results to airlines, though only the top-ranked in each area can use their rankings for advertising purposes, said Paula Sonkin, who handles the survey for J.D. Powers.
Rankings and ratings are important to airlines, said Chris Chiames, spokesman for the Air Transport Assn. in Washington, a trade group representing the carriers.
"Airlines don't disregard customer satisfaction and esteem," he said. "When an airline seat on any carrier is essentially interchangeable, the way carriers can distinguish themselves is by competing on service, in-flight amenities, on-time performance and low fares."
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Zagat on Airlines
The Zagat Survey, publisher of restaurant and hotel guides, last year asked its surveyer pool of 9,394 frequent flyers and industry professionals to evaluate airlines in several categories on a scale of 1 to 30. The highest overall scores:
INTERNATIONAL Singapore: 25.85 Swissair: 23.93 Cathay Pacific: 23.39 Japan: 22.96 Qantas: 22.41 All Nippon: 22.18 Virgin Atlantic: 21.85 Lufthansa: 21.49 KLM: 21.33 Finnair: 21.25
Midwest Express: 23.38 Alaska: 20.95 Kiwi International: 18.95 American: 18.16 Delta: 18.10 United: 17.35 Reno: 16.97 America West: 16.49 Midway: 16.43 Northwest: 16.37
Source: Zagat Survey