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Airline Gold Standards

Q: Which airlines have the worst reputations for safety and service among pilots? Which are considered “gold standard?”

Let’s start with safety. Unless you’re planning to fly across central Africa in a Sudanese cargo plane, comparing accident statistics between carriers is, to some extent, splitting hairs. Pilots are more likely to compare pay scales and retirement plans than debate which airlines are safer. No airline’s pilots, as a general rule, are any more skilled or talented than another’s, though you’re likely to get an argument from many experienced pilots who’ve felt betrayed or left behind due to the women/minorities hiring quotas at some companies.

Many myths and misconceptions exist with regard to the perils of riding on foreign airlines. Rumors that European crews are allowed to drink wine with their meals, for instance, circulate even among pilots. Various overseas airlines are responsible for some dubious blunders, but the unblemished records of many will startle you.

When we get into cabin service, however, everything changes. Service on US carriers, particularly in economy class, is the laughing stock of the airline world. (This may or may not surprise you.) First and business class, at least on international flights, tends to be quite good, but treatment in the back, if you haven’t noticed, leaves little to be desired. To really be comfortable without having to sell the house, one needs to seek out the likes of Singapore Airlines, Emirates, and other world-class airlines based in Europe and Asia. I remember Thai Airways offering me a full hot meal, complete with steaming towel and a flower, on a 60-minute domestic flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Such companies can’t help you, however, if you’re flying from Pittsburgh to Denver.

As if the airlines’ fare structures and fine print aren’t complicated enough, they’ve now taken to blurring the distinction between classes. Airlines like Delta and Continental no longer offer a first class cabin on many international runs, opting for a jazzed-up business class instead. It’s better than any domestic first class, but lacks the prestige of what’s become the international standard on long-haul services (that is, fully flat beds and other luxurious extravagances). Continental even came up with something called, in all possible befuddlement, “Business First.”

This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on 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 Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.