Zagat Favors Small Airline, Airports

The Zagat duo, Tim and Nina, put out the latest version of their Zagat Airline Survey today. Small airports and young airlines came out on top. This doesn't provide much hope for those flying out of New York, Los Angeles, Miami or Philadelphia. We'll talk with Nina Zagat about the survey results and which airlines are likely to make your travel experience this holiday a painful one.

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(Soundbite of Southwest Airlines commercial)

Unidentified Woman: Remember what it was like before there was somebody else up there who loved you? There was no such thing as executive-class service to Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, with first-class legroom, free cocktails for everyone, and a schedule you could depend on.

(Soundbite of airplane engine)

ALISON STEWART, host:

Ah, schedule you can depend on. Yes, remember when? That's a commercial from Southwest Airlines, circa 1972. Maybe you don't remember. Maybe you were just a glimmer in your dad's eye at that point.

Fast forward to November 2007, when 27 percent of flights don't arrive on time. It costs five bucks for a box of artery-clogging snacks, and some attendants - well, flight attendants, some are just playing surly.

Well, the folks who have been in the rating business for years, the Zagats, have released the new airline survey, which may arm you and maybe shame some airline folks into at least playing nice. All right, you don't even have to play nice. You just have to get me there, okay? Just get me to Tucson tonight.

Nina Zagat, a co-founder of the Zagat Survey, joins us. Hi, Nina.

Ms. NINA ZAGAT (Co-founder, Zagat Survey): Hi. How are you?

STEWART: Doing just fine, a little nervous tonight about flying on Jet Blue. But they did all right in your survey.

Ms. ZAGAT: I know. It's really an example of a company that basically came forward and said they were wrong and took responsibility. And their customers appreciated it because now, they're number three in the economy domestic airlines. And that's really good compared to where they were last year.

STEWART: Who's number one and two?

Ms. ZAGAT: Number one is Midwest Airlines, and two is Virgin America.

STEWART: So we have Midwest, Virgin America, Jet Blue. Do they have anything in common?

Ms. ZAGAT: Well, I think they do. I think that a concern about passengers having relatively new aircraft, which Virgin America certainly does. You know, it's a brand new airline. And Jet Blue does, compared to the more traditional airlines. And Midwest has limited routes, and so they really focus on an area and do it very well.

STEWART: Let's back up a little bit. How many frequent flyers contributed to this edition?

Ms. ZAGAT: Seventy-five hundred frequent flyers participated in this survey, which was, as with all of our surveys, is conducted on zagat.com.

STEWART: And what were the airlines judgment? What was the criteria?

Ms. ZAGAT: The criteria were comfort, food and service.

STEWART: Oh, boy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: The trifecta.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: I can see how there could be problems.

Ms. ZAGAT: Well, that's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Some of the heritage airlines really did not fare well in your survey.

Ms. ZAGAT: That's right.

STEWART: Why?

Ms. ZAGAT: Well, I think it's a combination of older aircraft, not the same mindset of being new and really pushing out there and doing absolutely the best. I think also for a variety of reasons, they have more expensive carrying costs. And so, you know, the one that really fared the worst was US Airways, both in premium class and economy class.

STEWART: Oh, that's bad when you don't fare well in premium class.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MIKE PESCA, host:

Isn't it funny that with the restaurant surveys, the restaurants that serve heirloom tomatoes and heritage food do well, but the heritage airlines not so much?

Ms. ZAGAT: Yeah. Well, it's…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ZAGAT: …completely different story.

PESCA: I would think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: So in terms of international economy travel - I'm just sticking with economy, because I'm thinking budgets right now. It seems that Asian carriers are just ruling the pack.

Ms. ZAGAT: That's right. The top three in the economy class for international airlines were Singapore, Emirates and Thai Airways. And you're right. They - you know, I think in all of those cases, they get some support from the government.

STEWART: Hmm.

Ms. ZAGAT: And also, I think, in some cases, they also have less expensive labor costs. And so that helps them do a little bit better.

STEWART: The other thing I love on your Web site right now is that you actually rank various airports…

Ms. ZAGAT: That's right.

STEWART: …in terms of…

Ms. ZAGAT: It's sad for New York.

STEWART: Yes, yes, it is. But it's good news for Tampa. Tampa International Airport, best overall U.S. airport. What? Do they have the most TCBYs? What's so great about Tampa?

Ms. ZAGAT: I think, for some reason, the airports in the smaller destinations seem to be doing better. Tampa, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul were the top three in overall quality. And then the worst were New York, La Guardia heading the pack, then Miami, then L.A., then Philadelphia and then fifth is JFK. So New York, it's not a pretty story.

STEWART: But it seems a little bit unfair for the big cities. I mean, in terms of volume, it's really easier to get in and out of Clovis, New Mexico, and I can imagine the people are a lot less hassled who work behind the counters.

Ms. ZAGAT: I think that's right. But, you know, I mean, we're not looking at the excuses or reasons. We're just saying…

STEWART: No excuses for Zagats.

Ms. ZAGAT: …you know, what do the customers think and what can you expect? And, you know, I think it's a combination of the kinds of facilities that the airports have that make people happy, you know, whether or not you can get some nice food.

STEWART: Sure. One of my favorite things on your Web site, just for a pure entertainment value, are some of the outtakes from the survey.

Ms. ZAGAT: That's right. We always…

STEWART: Somebody…

Ms. ZAGAT: …put things that we were not ready to print as part of the survey.

STEWART: The legroom is great if you're a yard gnome, somebody's response.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ZAGAT: That's right.

STEWART: What's your favorite?

Ms. ZAGAT: Don't enter the toilet without a hazmat suit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ZAGAT: Their planes make Larry King look young. Oh, poor Larry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ZAGAT: You know, I think that we always try to take the comments that we think are very humorous but we don't think are quite fair for printing as part of a review. And, you know, all of this information is on zagat.com.

STEWART: It really is hilarious. Finally, before I let you go, we just have a short bit of time left. Your survey revealed that 60 percent of people actually do their online - their traveling, their planning online.

Ms. ZAGAT: That's right.

STEWART: Who have the best Web site?

Ms. ZAGAT: Well, the best Web site was Southwest Airlines.

STEWART: And was it ease of use? Was it design? Was it…

Ms. ZAGAT: It's usually how intuitive…

STEWART: Huh.

Ms. ZAGAT: …a site is that makes people - and, you know, think that it's best. Jet Blue is the second, and Continental, third. Of those, the only one I've actually used online has been Jet Blue, which is really quite easy to use.

You know, as we head into the holidays, the other thing that's interesting is what irritates people most about flying. And number one on the list is the delays, cancellations and waiting.

So, you know, I hope everybody has a great holiday, but if you get upset about delays, everybody else is along with you. That's what 35 percent of the people said was their biggest irritation.

STEWART: Yeah. Pack a copy of "War and Peace" and "Moby Dick" and sit along…

Ms. ZAGAT: That's right.

STEWART: …down, and a liter of water. Nina Zagat, a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much for joining us here at NPR and THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT.

Ms. ZAGAT: Well, thank you, and have a Happy Thanksgiving.

STEWART: You, too, now.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: For me, the most infuriating thing is when they charge me a dollar for the headphones. They got me on your plane that ain't taking off, and you need to make the dollar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: You know what? They do…

PESCA: May the wrath of God be visited upon you after I get off the plane.

STEWART: Have you read the business section? They do need the dollar hike.

PESCA: Oh. THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT is more than a radio show. We're a multifaceted, multipronged, online extravaganza. Check out the Web site, it's BRYANT PARK from…

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