Readers Choice Awards, Part 2 of 3: The Worst

Revealing your choices for worst airlines compels us to revisit the old foreign-versus-American carrier theme, something we’ve thrummed nearly to death over the past year-and-half or so. Each time the topic seems exhausted, along comes a fresh supply of fodder.

As with last week, we’ll begin with an illustrative email…

“I just returned from a year-long trip during which I sampled the national airlines of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Ethiopia among others. I have to say that all were more pleasant and less vexing than pretty much any US carrier. Our Kyrgyz Air flight attendant served steamy beef stroganoff with a genuine smile!”

I’ve been a patriotic enough pilot, really I have, and I try not to sound gratuitous when this subject calls for attention. The idea, obviously, isn’t to be cranky or cynical for the sake of it. I think I’m pretty objective, and nothing pleases me more than a pleasant, satisfactory flight on a US-registered aircraft, whether one I experience personally or get wind of second-hand.

This time, all of the work was yours. I sat here hoping for the best, quietly excited each time I opened a letter applauding Delta, United, or American, and wincing ever so slightly when one of those haughty foreigners got the nod instead. That the likes of Singapore, Virgin, or British Airways swept the Americans off the runway, so to speak, was no surprise. What I hoped for, and to some extent received, was a glimmer of hope that on some level the tide is turning, that Stateside airlines are getting the message.

Passengers tend to view September 11th as the datum for their tailspinning expectations. In many people’s minds, some mythical Old World of flying existed prior to the attacks, and some debased new version has sprung to life since. This is only partially true. In terms of its avalanche-like swiftness, the financial devastation of many airlines can be traced directly, if not entirely, to that single day’s tragedies. But in whole, things are not terribly different, standards-wise, than what we had on September 10th, 2001. Red ink had been pooling for months, and the service trend, for quite some time, had been downward. The September 11th catalyst is only part of the reason mavericks like JetBlue have capitalized so relentlessly.

The legacy carriers continue to lose money and seek out ways to reduce costs and rework their business models. Whether their ongoing distress is the upshot of our population’s squeamishness or deeper economic fractures — or both — is something I’m not fully equipped to address, but I know one thing: there has been a tendency to scapegoat the events of 2001 (yes, no need to remind me, this extends well beyond the realm of air travel). The terrorists made us do it: safety and service as zero-sum variables. Do you want to arrive safely, or do you want something to eat? In much of the world the expected answer remains a hearty both!

A spade is a spade, and the bottom dwellers of my survey were, across the board, Americans. I’ll analyze this more deeply next week. For now, let’s get to the podium…

Readers Choice for Worst Airline, and winner of Ask the Pilot’s Golden Pretzel Award…

Northwest Airlines

Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a polite semitropolis built on cold Scandinavian sensibilities. It’s the home of Husker Du, the Replacements, and Walter Mondale. How much awful, really, can be wrought from the Mini Apple? What could be worse than Prince?

Your answer: Northwest Airlines, the city’s most well-known commercial export. Not even that sparkling new concourse in Detroit was enough to save Northwest from an abhorrent last place finish in my poll. Fifty million people flew the carrier last year, just about all of whom sent me emails, their assorted and endless agonies documented in weepingly painful detail.

“Brusque, apathetic service, annoyed flight attendants, terrible food, no thought for comfort or enjoyment.”

“Northworst personnel — at the check-in counter, the gate, and onboard — are often downright rude. Very rarely have I had a trip without a put-down from at least one of them.”

“I ask for milk, as opposed to creamer. ‘We are saving it for breakfast,’ I’m told. ‘Oh, just give it to him,’ says a more senior attendant who happens to walk by. Last October coming from Amsterdam, I walk to the galley and ask for orange juice an hour before landing. ‘We’re closed.’ Oh, and the pretzels are now thrown at passengers; the food trays slammed down. You’d think that half the cabin crew on any given flight have just lost their mothers and are working through their tears.”

“Flight attendants serve a meal 20 minutes after takeoff, then hide for seven hours.”

“Unsmiling, unhelpful flight attendants. They taunt me with their prices, convince me against my better judgement to buy another ticket with the hopes it’ll be different this time, and then make me hate myself two hours into a ten hour ride to Tokyo.”

“Horrible; surly service in the air, inattentive and dismissive gate personnel.”

“To Europe on a DC-10! Are you kidding?”

Northwest has been phasing in Airbus A330s, but for now continues to use graying DC-10s across the ocean. It is the last major to operate ’70s-era widebodies on intercontinental passenger routes, and the carrier’s fleet ranks eldest in the world. Aviation history buffs can appreciate that Northwest is the oldest (large) carrier in the United States, founded in 1926, but clearly this is taking the honor a bit too literally. One thing to make clear: this is not a safety issue, but these planes lack the entertainment systems and other accoutrements to keep them competitive on longer-range services.

But more importantly for the airline, if one consistent thread wove its way through nearly all of the anti-Northwest mail I received, it was that of the demeanor of its employees, particularly cabin staff. My poll reveals how certain airlines have cultivated their own special areas of disappointment. At Delta it’s unkempt planes; at American it’s hub delays. At Northwest, judging from your remarks, it’s a collective personality disorder bordering on violent psychosis.

Am I going too far with this? Just when I congratulate myself for avoiding gratuitous bashing, I decide to bash gratuitous. I’m just having fun, and besides I have an axe to grind: As part of Northwest’s recent livery makeover, one of my all time favorite corporate trademarks — the ingenious “NW” compass, devised by Landor Associates and in use since 1989 — was uglified beyond recognition. As I described it in a column last year, it was “bastardized into a lazy abstraction.”

I’ve had plenty of good (and a few bad) rides on Northwest, including several to Europe during the 1990s, when I always found the crews welcoming and hospitable. With my own recollections helping to demonstrate, let’s bear in mind last week’s lesson about first impressions and the fickle subjectivity of airline loyalties. To whit…

“I vote Northwest as the best airline in the US. Almost always on time, decent service, decent planes.”

“They’ve won me over by doing nothing fancy, but getting me where I want to go, at a reasonable price, with reasonable comfort and reasonable service and friendliness.”

Runners-up, Readers Choice Hall of Shame…

America West

“America West. We boarded, the doors closed, and we waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, the purser comes on and says, ‘We aphorize for the delay. A piece of the wing has fallen off and we are waiting for a mechanic to tell us if that’s important.'”

US Airways

“Surly people, bad prices and uncomfortable planes, need I say more?”

“Their staff are hostile, deliberately unhelpful, ignorant and unprofessional.”

ATA Airlines

“I can’t say that I find any airline to be consistently great or better than others. But ATA is, hands down, consistently horrible. They’ve lost my luggage 3 times. They are rude, unkempt, and disorganized every time.”

The former American Trans Air is now referred to by the empty and meaningless acronym, “ATA.” Diehards may insist on the fuller and funnier “American Trans Air Airlines.” Either way, ATA has been around since 1973, primarily a charter carrier but now with its own low-fares domestic network. They could use a new name and, evidently, a new attitude.

United Airlines

“A couple of years ago, I flew on United to Tokyo. It was a long time since I’d flown a US airline, and I was astonished. The cabin was tattered; the staff were rude; the food was horrible; there were no individual TV screens.”

“United Economy: cramped, overbooked, no legroom, and no business comforts like in-seat power ports. Their personal movie screens are frequently broken or poorly maintained.”

“United at one time was my favorite airline, but their service has plummeted. I’ve received outright lies from the gate personnel: “Our rescheduled departure time is 3:15.” Meanwhile it’s 3:05 and the incoming flight hasn’t even arrived yet. If you’re in O’Hare some night when the inevitable thunderstorms move in, be prepared for a hell like you’ve never imagined, with callous disregard by the airline for its customers.”

“United Airlines is the worst. So bad. So very, very bad. Absurdly bad. Incredibly bad. Insultingly bad. Just oozing badness out of every pore. Well, maybe not that bad. But lordy, they’re not good!”

Delta Air Lines

“Whenever possible, I avoid Delta altogether. On occasion, when I end up having to take one of their flights, the experience is consistently awful.”

“Their jets are as filthy as cattle cars.”

“Their planes are a mess.”

“Their aircraft look like they haven’t been renovated or cleaned since 1980.”

For a while, Delta was running neck-in-neck with Northwest and needed help fast. As the voting wound down, a last minute flurry of Delta devotees cast positive votes and saved them from shame. One of those devotees, I’ll admit, was me. Four small things I dig about Delta: (1) Their flat screen gateside information monitors. (2) Really good ice cream sundaes in business class. (3) Those slick, bicycle-seat amenities bags in same. (4) Delta’s airport and cabin staff uniforms.

The latter, I recently learned, have been designated for retirement (if it hasn’t happened already), as many folks apparently hate them. The shirts and blouses I’m talking about are a crisp, almost electric blue, a style and color wavering between utilitarian and ugly. Fashionable? Not exactly, but the outfits say one thing and say it well: Delta. The recognition is instantaneous, a rarity amidst today’s constantly changing liveries, logos and schemes. In the old days, Pan Am pilots donned white caps and the stewardesses wore powder blue suits. Not the most attractive outfits in the sky, but lastingly iconic. Delta’s duds aren’t in the same league, but they’re at least unique.

Singapore Airlines’ “sarong kebaya” comes to mind as today’s most notable example of enduring corporate apparel. It’s my hunch Singapore will dispense with the trademark sarongs the day it begins giving out prepackaged sandwiches in first class.

Speaking of prepackaged sandwiches, something I miss from Delta: SkyDeli. Until a few years ago, passengers on certain flights were offered a take-along gateside bag lunch. Each goodie bag. grabbed from a cooler prior to boarding, held a fresh sandwich, a piece of fruit, a bottle of water, snack mix and a cookie. Not as elaborate as those Lufthansa buffets I remember in Europe, but people liked it. On a short flight, the SkyDeli outscored the TV dinner hot meal any day.

For the morbid voyeur:
Miscellaneous Comments and Horror Stories

No matter how many minutes you languished in that holding pattern; not matter how obsese that armrest-stealing seatmate; no matter how unthawed that tiny omelet…. relax, it could have been worse…

“My worst pick is Spirit Airlines. Filthy aircraft often stinking of urine and openly hostile cabin crews. Mostly infrequent flyers in the passenger complement, who eschew even a modicum of common courtesy, so essential when sitting cheek-by-jowl for several hours. On one trip, counter agents allowed full-sized suitcases on board, some of which were jammed into an empty row of seats! I considered this a safety concern and refuse to fly Spirit again.”

“Air India. I still remember a late night flight from Bangkok to Tokyo, having to wait over an hour past departure time to board. Once airborne, we discovered that none of the cabin electrics worked in the rear section of steerage class. No reading lights, no audio, nothing. When I complained, they let me sit in business class, but I wasn’t allowed any service and had to go back when I finished reading. I asked for a class of water 45 minutes before arriving in Tokyo. Nine years later, I’m still waiting.”

“The worst is definitely a British charter outfit, Air 2000. I’ve used them from London to points in Africa on a few occasions. The last time, I was struck ill by a horrible infection after takeoff. As I was shivering, sweating, vomiting and delirious, my husband asked (a) for a blanket, (b) to move me into an empty row so I could lie down, and (c) for a drink or some ice cubes to keep me hydrated. The responses were (a) “We’ve run out,” (b), “those were the seats you were assigned and those are the seats you have to stay in,” and (c) “You’ll have to wait until the beverage cart comes out next hour.” They even expected us to pay for the ice cubes!

“Lufthansa. I would rather walk on my lips to my destination than fly them again, ever. Dirty wet trash thrown in my lap by surly flight attendants; an overseas flight that ran out of food. And the customer service reps at their office in Istanbul laughed at my complaints!”

“Air China. A Dante experience from Beijing to Hong Kong: sitting in front of the screen where they show the “World Championship of Military Marching” (only participants China and North Korea) for three long hours is a short glimpse of hell.”


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.