International carriers ranked far ahead of U.S. competition


September 17, 1990|By Tom Belden | Tom Belden,Knight-Ridder News Service

Tim and Nina Zagat, a New York couple with an eclecti collection of in-depth guides to restaurants and hotels in 16 cities, are in the airline-rating business. And some of their findings make great reading.

As experienced business travelers might guess, international airlines, led by Singapore, Swissair, Japan, SAS, Qantas and Lufthansa, rank far ahead of U.S. carriers in comfort, service, on-time reliability and food in the Zagat survey. Aeroflot was the clear winner as the world's worst airline.

American Airlines, followed closely by Singapore, was designated the "favorite" of more passengers. American had been flown by 3,222 of the 4,400 people who participated in the survey, compared with 529 who said they had flown on Singapore.

It's the information beyond the numbers, however, that is the most fun to read -- because of the subjective way the Zagats do their surveys: They let participants express themselves.

By asking the travelers to list their gripes about airlines, the research turned up an enlightening, often funny list with headings from A to Z. For instance, A is for such things as "Always late" and "Aisles designed for stick people." B is for "Being hit on the head by carry-on luggage" and "Baggage sent to hell."

L is for "Legroom non-existent," and M is for "Men with spreadsheets in coach." W is for "Waiting, waiting, waiting," and Y is for "Your jacket crushed by the time you land" and "Yucky desserts."

The 25,000 people who were sent questionnaires had participated in previous Zagat restaurant and hotel surveys. A total of 5,500 returned the questionnaires, but only 4,400 of those answered the questions about airlines.

The study isn't a true random sample of the whole population, or even of all people who fly, but it definitely turned up frequent travelers, said Nicholas Tortorello, chairman of Research & Forecasts, the firm that conducted the survey for the Zagats. The respondents, 60 percent men and 40 percent women, spend an average of 43 nights a year on the road, he said.

More than anything, the comments in the survey show how difficult it is for many travelers to find good domestic airline service.

They add up to another significant piece of research concluding that experienced travelers are often frustrated and unhappy, with delayed flights overwhelmingly being the biggest gripe. Half of the respondents mentioned tardiness as their chief complaint.

"So much consumer frustration with the airline industry today is expressed by the delay syndrome," said Tim Zagat. "People have come to equate airline travel with lost time."

A lack of comfort aboard airplanes and poor service also were important to smaller groups. But only 3.3 percent complained about food, probably a reflection that travelers are resigned to mediocre airline meals, Mr. Tortorello said.

Men and women differed in the factors they considered in choosing an airline. The routes a carrier flies topped the list for men and women. To women, costs and safety were more important than on-time reliability and service. Men rated service and price ahead of safety.

Tim Zagat suggested that the key reason foreign carriers did so much better in the happiness ratings was that they must offer something special because of the length of their flights. Better meals and service are necessary for international carriers to compete successfully, he said.

"They are essentially being rated on long-haul, wide-body international service, whereas the domestic carriers are, for the most part, being evaluated on short-hop flights in narrow-bodied planes," he said. "It makes sense to view the internationals and domestics as two separate leagues."

Another amusing result, and very reflective of the personal touch that comes across in all Zagat surveys, is how people, in evaluating international carriers, also seem to echo the stereotypes of the country and people who run each airline, Mr. Tortorello said.

"They'll say that Swissair is always on time," he said. "Lufthansa is very well-organized but cold. Alitalia is fun, with great-looking flight attendants, but is somewhat disorganized. And Air France has great food but can be arrogant."

The complete results of the survey will be published in December as part of the new "Zagat U.S. Travel/Hotel Survey."

* Airline delays have shot up at New York's Kennedy and `f

LaGuardia airports over the last year and a half. That should serve as a warning to travelers to allow ample time if they have connecting flights through one of the airports.

The Federal Aviation Administration reported that at LaGuardia delays of more than 15 minutes were up 111 percent in 1989 and 59 percent in the first five months of 1990 in comparison with year-before periods. At Kennedy, delays rose 52 percent last year and 58 percent in the first five months of 1990.

The late flights were caused largely by weather, congested air traffic in the New York area and a shortage of fully trained air-traffic controllers.

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