Zagat's 2009 Airline Survey Shows Air Travel Decline

Continental, JetBlue and Singapore Continue to Fly High; Southwest Named Best Domestic Value; Virgin America Top Midsize Airline and Website; Portland Named Top Airport, LaGuardia Worst; Surveyors Seek Direct Routes, Reasonable Prices and Green Air Travel

Zagat Zagat released the results of its 2009 Airline Survey today, covering 16 domestic and 73 international airlines, as well as 30 domestic airports. The survey, conducted on, incorporates the opinions of 5,895 frequent fliers and travel professionals (e.g. travel agents) who collectively took 97,600 flights in the past year.

Background: Each airline was separately rated on Zagat's signature 30-point scale on its premium and economy class service for both domestic and international flights. The airlines were rated on four aspects of their performance: (1) Comfort, (2) Service, (3) Food and (4) Website. Other issues such as Value, On-Time Performance, Luggage Policy and In-Flight Entertainment were also covered.

Economy: This is the third annual Zagat airline survey and eighth survey since 1990. Not unexpectedly, this survey shows a decline in flying following the economic downturn. Fully 33% of the respondents reported flying less often while only 7% said more. Confirming this decline, surveyors indicated that they were taking an average of 19.7 flights per year in 2007; that bottomed out to 16.3 in 2008 and ended up at 16.6 in 2009. The proportion of flights for business declined from 64% in 2007 to 61% in 2009 with leisure flights going from 35% to 39% in 2009.

Bookings: When it comes to booking flights, travel agents continued to lose ground: their share of bookings declined from 17% in 2007 to 8% this year; booking directly through the airlines' websites rose from 60% to 64% during the same period. Travel websites were flat at 15% - a nod to special corporate incentives, which may explain why booking through work increased from 2% to 8%.


High Fliers: Looking at the rankings of the airlines it's clear that the major traditional U.S. airlines have been falling behind. For example, American, Delta, United, and US Air received overall ratings (combined average of Comfort, Service and Food) between 9 and 11 on the 30-point Zagat scale for their domestic economy class service. Of the major traditional U.S. airlines only Continental broke out of the pack with an overall rating of 15. Relatively new airlines such as JetBlue and Virgin America - flying newer planes with younger crews got much higher ratings (19 and 21, respectively). Virgin America received a 24 for its premium service. As always, ratings for international flights were substantially higher overall. While Continental's international performance scored best among the U.S. majors, airlines subsidized by their governments receive the highest marks, e.g. Singapore (24), Emirates (22) and Cathay Pacific (21).

Choice Factors: Surveyors' most important considerations in choosing an airline are the following: direct routes (68%), ticket price (61%), seat comfort/leg-room (51%), past experience (49%), time of day (48%) and frequent flier programs (42%). For budget-conscious fliers, Continental and Southwest are this year's winners for Best Value among international and domestic performance, respectively.

"The newer airlines continue to do well in the survey. Being less expensive to operate, they can therefore afford to provide better service," said Tim Zagat, CEO of Zagat Survey. "That airlines like Singapore, Emirates and Cathay Pacific do so well is a no-brainer - government support. The big question is how Continental does so well without any special advantages."

The full list of winners ranked by overall score includes the following:

Large Domestic Premium Class: 21 Continental Airlines

17 American Airlines
Delta Air Lines
16 United Airways
15 AirTran Airways

Large Domestic Economy Class: 19 JetBlue Airways

15 Continental Airlines
Southwest Airlines
12 AirTran Airways
11 Delta Air Lines

Midsize Domestic Premium Class: 24 Virgin America

21 Hawaiian Airlines

20 Alaska Airlines

Midsize Domestic Economy Class: 21 Virgin America

Midwest Airlines

16 Hawaiian Airlines

International Premium Class: 28 Singapore Airlines

26 Cathay Pacific Airways
Emirates Airlines
25 Air New Zealand
Virgin Atlantic Airways

International Economy Class: 24 Singapore Airlines

22 Emirates Airline
21 ANA (All Nippon Airways)
Air New Zealand
Thai Airways

That's Entertainment: This year, surveyors awarded honors for top in-flight entertainment to JetBlue domestically, and Virgin Atlantic internationally.

Best on the Ground: When it comes to the overall airport quality, Portland International was rated No. 1 by surveyors, edging out last year's winner, Tampa International, which is No. 2 this year. Rounding out the top five airports are Detroit Wayne County, Orlando International and Minneapolis/St. Paul International. New York's LaGuardia Airport placed last with surveyors for the third straight survey.

Going Green: As in other fields, American consumers seem eco-friendly with 28% saying that they would be more likely to fly a certain airline if it introduced more "green" practices. When asked which domestic airlines operate in the most "green" manner, JetBlue, Southwest, Virgin America, Continental and Delta, in order, landed the top five positions.

Outtakes: Consistent with prior Zagat airline surveys, passengers were acerbic about the industry, to wit;

-- "Another contender for the 'Passengers Come Last' award."
-- "Basks in its adequacy."
-- "Asked why we didn't have blankets, the steward said 'so they could
give the execs bonuses.'"
-- "I expected a coin slot for the toilet."
-- "If there was any less legroom, I'd have to check my legs."
-- "At least you don't have to pay extra to have your luggage delayed."
-- "The miracle airline ... 23 wheelchair passengers pre-boarded, but
only four need them after landing."
-- "They still serve bad airline food, so retro!"
-- "Cabin staff has been on duty since Sherman sacked Atlanta."
-- "Should I have to pay extra for my knees?"

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