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Break from U.S. carriers lifts passenger spirits

Josh Noel

Tribune Travels

8:56 PM EDT, May 14, 2013

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Flying foreign airlines can be so much more pleasant than our domestic options. On a recent KLM flight to Amsterdam, the Dutch airline behaved as if it was in the customer-service industry, not merely transporting a bunch of people from one point to another.

I've flown enough non-U.S. airlines to know this situation to be true, but I do it so occasionally that it amazes me every time.

For instance: The seat-back video screen suggested seat exercises that would keep us feeling healthy. Noting that the cabin would be dry, we were encouraged to drink ample water and moderate amounts of alcohol and coffee. Passengers were invited to enter the galley to ask for beverages and snacks. Because the plane was two-thirds full, a flight attendant cheerfully suggested we reorganize ourselves to be as comfortable as possible. And this was in economy!

Other amenities included remote-controlled lights, a vast movie catalog, free head phones that weren't junk, warm towels to freshen up ("a special touch from the Dutch for you to enjoy") and, of course, free booze, though I wasn't sure of that at first.

"Is there a charge for the wine?" I asked the flight attendant.

"Only an extra smile," she said.

Encouraging me to smile on an airplane? How can I ever fly an American airline again?

I know it's not easy being a flight attendant — I wouldn't want to do it — but the caliber of service on non-U.S. airlines tends to be so vastly superior to what we get on American, United and Delta that, given the option to hop on a Lufthansa, KLM or Singapore flight, you'd be mad not to (especially if they code-share frequent-flier miles with an American carrier).

A recent ranking of the 20 best airlines in the world by Business Insider shows I'm not alone in this conclusion. Using airline reviews from Skytrax and on-time performance data from FlightStats.com, Business Insider's list included just one American airline: Virgin America, which tied for second (and probably not coincidentally, was started Richard Branson, a Brit). The rankings were otherwise dominated by Asian and Middle Eastern airlines.

When did the U.S. flight experience fall so far behind foreign competitors?

Alex Davies, a Business Insider reporter who worked on the rankings, argued that it began when prices and profits were no longer guaranteed for the airlines following industry deregulation in 1978. Fare wars and dropping prices might have been a boon for the consumer, but they also led to cost-cutting and more austere attitudes about service.

Pile on the recent recession, when airlines began reducing their fleets, and the rising cost of fuel, and planes have become increasingly full, leading to shorter fuses and less pleasant experiences for everyone.

"In the understandable rush to beat out competitors, you cut out the fat," Davies said. "The things that make flying a more pleasant experience, you take out."

"That seems like something (the industry) could fix if they put the time in and add those little touches like Virgin does," Davies said. "You would think a lot of that stuff is straightforward."

Virgin America has been among the exceptions, with amenities such as electrical outlets throughout the plane and novel twists such as being able to send a drink to a passenger who catches your eye. Other corners of the globe certainly have faced similarly lean economic times, but their airlines have remained civil for perhaps no reason other than cultural expectations.

"Part of it probably is cultural when it comes to things like food," Davies said. "The food is better on Air France than on American, and maybe that's just because of the expectations of French people."

But he's not terribly optimistic about immediate change.

"As long as people are willing to pay the cheapest price," Davies said, "things aren't going to get much better."

In the meantime, there's still KLM.

jbnoel@tribune.com