a silver trophy on a wooden surface
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And the winner for best lip sync performance goes to….

In sports, we have winners and losers. At the end of a season, it’s easy to see who the best team is. But in other realms of life, like airlines, things can be more difficult to quantify. Is a film good or bad because the critics say so? Is a restaurant worth dining in because a guide gives it a star? Is an airline better for your trip than another, because it has a good review from a ratings agency?

Some airlines have bought into the arbitrary, and sometimes laughable ratings dished out by Skytrax and other award ceremonies, but no, you can’t blame them for competing. Being called “world’s best airline” has a great ring to it, and no one wants to be known as one of the worst. It’s not the arbitrary idea of ratings that is the problem, it’s the ratings themselves, and their utter lack of credibility which really help consumers to have great journeys.

Some people, especially general travellers, buy into ratings system that declares one airline over the other, regardless of the merits or underlying criterion. It’s hard to blame them: people want to have great travel experiences, so we collectively look to things which may help guide us to one. I’ve never booked a flight because an airline won an award, and never will, but I see why others do.

looking out of an airplane windowNo airline wants to be the worst ranked on any list, even one that doesn’t really matter, and these ranking groups make airlines jump through absolutely ridiculous hoops to avoid such notoriety. To dazzle these questionable critics, airlines play absolutely ridiculous games to help their chances. If it puts butts in seats for an airline, it’s worth it, right?

It all started a couple years ago when I was reading the Business Traveller “Cellars In The Sky” award results. I’m a big fan of Business Traveller, and have loved things that come from cellars from as long as I’ve been of age, and realistically – a few years beforehand too.

But one thing didn’t square with me. An airline I was flying on a bi weekly basis had won an award for serving a champagne in business class that I’d never, ever seen served in the air. Not once. Naturally, I looked up the rules for entry from BT, and found the following…

“Airlines can participate providing they served wine in business or first class on mid- or long-haul routes. Each can enter two reds, two whites, a sparkling and a fortified or dessert wine from both their business and first class cellars. They can compete in as many categories as they like, but to be eligible for the Best Cellar awards had to enter at least one red, white and sparkling wine.”

Lufthansa First Class Wine And ChampagneThe key word here to me is “served”. We’re not talking about months, weeks, multiple routes or even necessarily many days where actual passengers would have experienced the wines in question, just that they were served at some point, somewhere. As expected, it would be semi fair to say that most  airlines choose to cheat, entering wines hardly ever seen in the skies into this competition, at least in business class.

And then it hit me again even harder, when Lufthansa announced a flash press conference to proudly proclaim that it had become a “5 Star Airline” as voted by Skytrax, a UK aviation “consultancy” which keeps arguably the most reputed airline ranking list.

Why had fledgling Lufthansa shot up the ranks, joining the likes of beloved airlines such as Singapore Airlines, ANA, Qatar and Qantas, while other European airlines were stuck in the mud?

a white airplane in the skyBecause Lufthansa promised to introduce a new business class seat in three years time. Not today, tomorrow, or for any day in the year for which the rankings count, but for an unknown, still yet to be scheduled date in the future. According to Skytrax themselves, Lufthansa’s current business class seat in a 2-2-2 layout is not of a five star standard, like the 1-2-1 seating layouts of every single other five star airline. Somehow, the wink and the nod of promises for years into the future equated to a 5 star rating today. Don’t take our word for it, the Skytrax CEO was quoted saying exactly that…

“A key factor behind Lufthansa gaining 5-Star Airline Certification is the recently announced new business class cabin and seat that will be delivered when the airline receives their first Boeing 777X aircraft.”

Don’t hate the player, hate the game?

Skytrax typically penalizes airlines with less than 80% product consistency – in other words – when an airline doesn’t have their better seat on at least 80% of the long haul fleet – yet somehow they gave Lufthansa a boost for having a seat with 0% consistency, or even delivery? This prompted One Mile At A Time to pen a classic expose on Skytrax credibility, absolutely worth a read. Generally speaking, the announcement of a new business class would’ve also been years off, and the way new business class seats are moving, Lufthansa’s may be obsolete by the time it gets here anyway, if it does at all.

That’s hardly where the games end.

Just over a couple months ago, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I boarded a Qatar Airways business class flight to see a wine list including Laurent Perrier Rose Champagne, and some heavy hitting reds and whites more often found in the first class cabin. The airline had steadily dropped the price points for these offerings in recent years, yet all the sudden they were back at a 2x price level. What gives, I asked the cabin crew member, with a thrill in my eye. “It’s just for Skytrax” the crew member retorted, “it’ll be gone soon.”

Sure enough, it was. Less than a month after I reported on the Laurent Perrier offering, it was back to the standard stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I think Qatar Airways legitimately has one of the absolute best wine programs in the sky, and the “standard stuff” is stuff people are overjoyed to drink, and probably nicer than what most people drink at home, but it just wasn’t what Skytrax was judging the airline on. It just wasn’t genuine.

But who cares about facts, it worked. Qatar was just announced as the #1 airline on the Skytrax 2019 rankings, up a spot from 2018 where it grabbed the second place trophy behind Singapore Air. There is no doubt that their little show during the brief period when Skytrax “inspectors” are conducting their work paid dividends.

a sunset seen through a windowThe airline can now spend the rest of the year proclaiming itself as the best airline in the world, and thousands, if not millions of passengers will choose Qatar over others based on this novelty notion. It’s not to say Qatar couldn’t be #1 in a fair fight, but they currently hold the title in a rigged game, which just doesn’t feel the same.

We as consumers must place less stock in these foolish rating games, put on by companies who profit and rely on airline cash to stay in business. I’d argue that it’s far better to look at which airline has the best on time performance for the route in question, or the most daily flights to offer you more flexibility. Or really, whichever airline has the best price on the route, with a reasonable offering. Read reviews on blogs, look for first hand trip reports and make your decision based on your wallet, your schedule and the other logical factors – not some rigged game to win awards.

By the way, airlines, I’ll be starting my own rating system, so please line up accordingly with your money in hand. We don’t take cheque, either.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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