The best & worst international airlines: Our anecdotes & experiences

Where cabin service and check-in service go, United Airlines would be at the bottom of my list of major carriers hands down. I have many anecdotes of the rottenness of their service.

BHPian V.Narayan recently shared this with other enthusiasts.

Starting a new thread on experiences, good and not so good, on international flights. This thread is also meant to share advice, words of caution to fellow members & readers and provide helpful guidance about international air travel and airlines. Given the large number of Team BHPians who are flying international each day it is my hope this thread will be useful.

First some fun facts on air travel followed by a couple of my less pleasant experiences:

  • The world’s busiest air route is Seoul-Jeju both in South Korea with 17 million passengers*. In fact, amongst the top ten only one route is outside Asia and that is New Mexico-Cancun with 5.6 million pax. India’s top city pair is New Delhi-Mumbai with 4.9 million at rank 13th. The busiest international air route is Hong Kong- Taipei with 6.5 million pax. Interestingly all top 10 international routes are in Asia.
  • Business class in a rudimentary form came in 1978 with Pan Am, British Airways and Air France offering extra services and amenities to those economy class passengers who had paid a full economy fare. Qantas introduced the first separate Business Class, as we understand it today, in 1979.
  • Question: How long does the oxygen in an emergency mask last? Answer: The oxygen masks provided from above your seat, in the case of an emergency, are designed to give out a full 15 minutes of oxygen, enough to allow the pilot to lower the altitude of the plane to a level where the outside air pressure is breathable (around 10,000 feet or 3,000 meters).
  • One fact which ill-informed passengers and media do not believe is that the air on board an aircraft is very clean. In fact, roughly 40 percent of the air we breathe during a flight is being filtered through a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) system. The other 60 percent is fresh air that’s being brought on board from outside the plane. Cabin air is completely changed every three minutes, on average, while the aircraft is cruising.
  • Carrying cargo pays more than carrying passengers. An economy class ticket on an average covers its share of the costs and the discounted economy class ticket is most often only covering its share of variable costs.
  • KLM, the Dutch airline, is the world’s oldest airline in continuous operation under its original name. It was formed in 1919. Aviance {Colombia}, Qantas and Aeroflot are the other three airlines with 100 years of unbroken service under the same same.

Back in May 1996 I was on a United Airlines flight from Paris to Washington DC. As a younger more struggling professional I was in economy. It was a Boeing 767 with a 2+3+2 seating. I was in window seat ‘A’ and a European {probably French} passenger in seat ‘B’. Soon after take off my neighbour spoke to the air hostess in French and said something to the effect of ‘please change my seat, I don’t want to sit next to this black bum’. I understand enough of French {though I can’t speak the language} to know what he said and looked at the air hostess and said in English, ‘please oblige him’. And she changed his seat. The air hostess was a French lady and I got the impression that back in the day she felt the request made by that passenger was perfectly reasonable.

On another occasion in 2006 I was the solitary passenger in the business class cabin of Air India flying back from South East Asia {can’t recall the port of embarkation} and the cabin crew after serving my meal all sat around in the empty biz class seats and talked endlessly at the top of their voices including playing film songs on a Sony walkman {remember those things}! I actually had to request them to maintain silence in the cabin as I wished to sleep. I’m grateful that at least after my polite but firm request they piped down.

Where cabin service and check-in service go, United Airlines would be at the bottom of my list of major carriers hands down. I have many anecdotes of the rottenness of their service. Air China would be next low down on my list with American Airlines a close 2nd runner up. I haven’t flown some bloopers such as Aeroflot, Olympic {Greece}, Ryan Air, Air Canada. American carriers usually break the scales on terrible service. Asian carriers, the major international ones, usually come out tops on cabin service IMHO. Among the European carriers I’d rate Lufthansa and KLM, Virgin Atlantic up there and SAS, Alitalia, Iberia down there.

Photos of the two worst airlines I have flown with:

Here’s what BHPian no_fear had to say on the matter:

Airlines flown by me:

Star Alliance:

Aegean, ANA, Air Canada, Air China, Air India, Air New Zealand, Asiana Airlines, Avianca, Copa Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, Eva Air, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Thai Airways, Turkish and United.

Oneworld:

Alaska Air, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Qatar Air, Royal Air Maroc, Sri Lankan Airlines.

Skyteam:

Aeromexico, Air France, China Eastern, Delta, Kenya Airways, KLM.

Standalone airlines:

Air Asia, Air Baltic, Airlink (South Africa), Air Tahiti, Caribbean Airlines, Cubana, Easyjet, Emirates, Frontier, Gulf Air, Indigo, Jetblue, Jetstar, Kuwait Airways, LAM Chile, LAM Mozambique, Lionair, Rwandair, Ryanair, Spring Air, Scoot, Skymark, Spirit, Tigerair, Ukraine International Airlines, Vietjet, Vistara, Vueling.

I am missing out a few probably.

Most memorable airlines – Singapore Air, Turkish, ANA. SQ is truly the undisputed champion, while Turkish has the best food. ANA has the cleanest planes.

The most boring airlines – United, KLM, British Airways, Iberia, Kuwait Air. They get you from point A to B but that’s about it. As glamorous as riding a Delhi public bus.

Worst of the worst – LAM Mozambique (delayed in Maputo on a domestic flight for 3 days), and Cubana – (flight to Cuba from Cancun with 200 passengers and just one bottle of 1.5 liter of water used by the staff to fill plastic cups. Had to drink the water with miniscule sips).

Most efficient – surprise surprise!! Ryanair (you need to know the tricks of the trade and it can do wonders if you want to travel within Europe on a shoestring budget)

Most hyped but probably average experience – Emirates. My personal experiences have been outright horrid. The flight crew can put Biman Bangladesh to shame.

Here’s what BHPian androdev had to say on the matter:

Here is an interesting anecdote. I am probably hazy with the details as this happened back in 2000 or so. I was flying business class to the US with Singapore Airlines and in Seoul airport they realised they overbooked the business class and they wanted a volunteer to downgrade to Economy class. I looked young, brown and single, so they approached me and requested very politely if I would be kind enough to downgrade to Economy class and they would refund the price difference. I did not mind and gave my consent – they were very polite and it was hopefully more to do with my young+single status than my skin colour (wishful thinking).

During the flight, two flight attendants came up to me, thanked me and gave me a bunch of gifts as a token of appreciation. One of the gifts was an upgrade coupon. My return trip was also business class. I had the option of using the coupon for a future journey to upgrade from economy to business class which would offer substantial benefits in savings and comfort. Or upgrade my return business class to first class which would offer fairly marginal savings and improvement in comfort. It may seem trivial but it was a deeply philosophical choice for a young person like me as I was not routinely eligible for business class travel and it would be awesome to upgrade from economy to business class.

I flew first class. It was wonderful – they kneeled to serve and made me feel like a king (too bad I am a teetotaller). To this day, I have not had another opportunity to fly first class and mostly fly economy class. I consider it to be one of the best decisions I have made in life and to this day serves me as a reference to be less pragmatic in life. In life, I prefer one first class + one economy tickets to two business class tickets. When the Indigo ladies push me around like cattle, I think of the day when the prettiest Singapore air hostess kneeled and served me a feast of gourmet food with no fellow passengers within hearing distance.

I scanned the stub as it was beginning to fade to keep as a souvenir:

Here’s what BHPian ninjatalli had to say on the matter:

This was back in 2007 and my first international trip on my own (as a young adult). Actually, it was the return trip after spending 3 months in Australia but technically I’d say it was my first round trip. I was flying Air Malaysia with a nearly full-day halt at KL, with my first leg ending early morning and the connecting flight later in the night.

I got a transit pass and did some sightseeing & shopping in the city and returned back to the airport with some 2 hours to spare. My security check-in was completed in less than 15 mins so I had a lot of time to spare in the duty-free shopping section. Or so I thought. I went about browsing the liquor and chocolate sections blissfully unaware of the time passing by when I overheard an announcement in Malay with my name. I then looked at the time and realized I had just ~10 mins to departure. I literally ran to the boarding gate and thankfully the staff had waited for me and allowed me to board the plane. The poor attendant mentioned they had every other passenger on the flight boarded at least 15 mins ago with only me left.

To date, I have never felt so embarrassed as I did that day. Also, that was the day I realized why Air Malaysia and Singapore Airlines were top-rated on customer service.

Here’s what BHPian ajmat had to say on the matter:

First – without meaning to be elitist – avoid the budget airlines.

Why?

Check In- Passengers come in with cargo – leading to delayed check-in.

In-Flight – No entertainment, no decent food, loud talking, no space.

Transfer – People have huge carry ons and then need to do repeated security pass throughs as they never empty their pockets, baggage thoroughly.

Plenty of crazy other things – flight timings keep changing (Go Air), need to reconfirm (Air Arabia)

AirMiles:

Keep redeeming them – try last minute at check in.

Some like Singapore Airlines are like fairy gold – never worth anything.

Emirates – worked for me – managed to upgrade to Business Class – Seattle to Dubai – worth every point. Also did London to Dubai for a small surcharge.

Lufthansa – Worked well once from Frankfurt to Bangalore.

If I had not redeemed the points, I would have lost them post Covid

My experience with Airlines:

Air India – They know how to cope in a crisis – My cheapo ex company routed me in winter from London- Delhi-Mumbai-Bangalore – before international flights started in Bangalore. Checked into LHR to find my flight had not even reached New York due to Delhi Fog. 10 hours in LHR, I had returned the car, the house was now locked up. Luckily, the Air India lady knew what to do.

“Only 1 PAX?”

“Ok, will put you on a flight to Mumbai leaving in a couple of hours”

British Airways- Bland. They lost my baggage in the T5 first day , first show. Ended up in the US with one change of underwear. To cut long story short, my baggage came back 10 days after I reached home. I use BA only if I need to visit directly /stop over in the UK. I did get upgraded Business Class once. – it was nice but nowhere like Emirates. Tip – for good food – London-India – specify Indian Vegetarian – its usually prepared very well.

Emirates – Not the best but reliable. DXB is boring but the best latte I have enjoyed at GetYourFix. Best for trans-atlantic as they fly past the North Pole.

Qatar – Clean, quiet, efficient – recommended.

Thai – Food is not so great. BKK airport – big and nothing more – bathrooms are not always clean. Best duty free are the shops immediately after clearing immigration.

Singapore Airlines – Good Food – decent service except between India and Singapore. Changi airport is a nice place to be.

Cathay – Not bad but beware of thieves. Some lowlife stole my headphone – BLR to HK.

Royal Malaysian – They lose your baggage. A dear friend of mine is currently sitting pant less in South Island , New Zealand. The bag is in Auckland but shows no sign of movement.

US – I stick to Jet Blue – I used to avoid short flights and drive. Domestic flights best used with carry on bags only.

Turkish – Good food, clean aircraft.

Airports:

LHR – Terminal 4 and 5 are ok – Terminal 1 and 3 are grimy and crowded.

Frankfurt -Big, bland, confusing to transfer.

Beijing – Massive – once asked the Shangri-la for an airport pickup and it starts with a pretty lady meeting me directly at the gate, taking me through immigration and taking me to an exclusive room and floor where my car awaited

Shanghai – If you are on the Pudong side – take the Maglev and a taxi onwards. Taxi Guides are on hand to make sure you get to the right place.

Hong Kong – transfer is time consuming, dinner time is crowded, try to look for somewhere in one of the wings instead of the food court.

Geneva – Boring.

Munich – Nice but small.

Nice – Nice homely place.

JFK – Big, dirty, – taxi is a ripoff – try booking a Town Car – much easier or take the subway into town.

SFO – Boring, a few nice restaurants but nothing else.

Vancouver – Very pleasant.

Colombo – Old – Beware of people trying to help load baggage – they merely want cash. Give yourself time and people are slow.

Exchanging money – Avoid at airports. Forex reconversion in China – so complex that its not worth it.

VAT Refunds – Worth it for recovering huge amounts and expensive small hand carried items. LHR has a long queue for declaring checked in items. The staff there will suggest you to hand carry and declare after immigration. BKK – you won’t get much refund for all the effort.

Most surprisingly decent airport – Manama – quick, clean, pleasant.

Bathrooms:

Most are never pleasant except Dubai post 11 am, Qatar, Singapore, Frankfurt

Bangalore Airport – If your bowels are not upto lasting beyond the flight – try the set of bathrooms located behind the check in rows accessed from behind the middle elevator. You walk in, the janitor will size you up and offer a clean stall. Do remember him on your way out.

Here’s what BHPian moralfibre had to say on the matter:

This was in Feb – 2009, I think my 3rd international flight. By now, I felt I had enough travel experience to know how it is done in comfort. So I packed off everything in checked baggage and just held on to my backpack with a camera, laptop and chargers for a trip to SFO via LHR. The flight was supposed to land at 0730 hrs and I peeked out of the window to see this:

After a while, we were cleared to land and couldn’t even taxi our way to the gate. My shorts and t-shirt attire did not like the weather. After about 2 hours of hold on the taxiway, we disembarked using conventional airstairs.

As I type this, I can still feel the cold that bit me as soon as they opened the aircraft doors.

What ensued later was a 13 hour in queue wait time at T5 in Heathrow just to get a ticket reissued. The city was gridlocked and no staff could make it to the airport. The entire pax traffic at T5 was handled by 2-3 ticketing agents. Thankfully people were civil and did not make a fuss about the facilities and treated each other well.

No free wifi, no decent snack or food was available. Thankfully some airport staff passed by every 2 hours with a bag of chips and some bottles of water.

My bags arrived a week later. After this incident, I ensure that I have adequate supply for atleast 2-3 days of clothing, toiletries and other essentials for any travel.

Other useful advice:

Use https://flightaware.com/ to track your inbound plane. There’s a button that shows where it is. If it is delayed, there is no point in going in early to the airport.

Use https://www.seatguru.com/ to figure out your seating configuration. There may be useful hacks to get an extra legroom seat without having to pay extra money.

Use miles graciously. I regret not having done that in the previous decade. I realised how useful alliance statuses are much later. Star Alliance Gold pretty much offers you everything that business travellers get: Priority checkin, Extra baggage allowance, priority tags on your bags, lounge access, faster security at some airports.

Enroll for Global Entry if you are a seasoned traveler to the US. Even once a year is reason enough.

Indians qualify to apply for it. What you get for $100 is essentially a Green carpet walkout at US airports to skip the queue. After 22+ hours of flying, this is a boon. An added bonus is TSA Pre inclusion with Global Entry. TSA Pre gives you a faster security clearance for domestic travel. It’s like using an expressway within US airports.

For best fares, use – https://www.google.com/flights and toggle “track prices” for finding out the best deals. The dategrid and price graph features are super helpful. Use it only to get pricing, book on the relevant airline website.

Check out BHPian comments for more insights and information.

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