Why Most Bad Airlines Aren’t Necessarily Worth Avoiding

A few days ago I shared thoughts about my recent Tunisair business class flight from Tunis to Montreal, which featured angled seats and subpar bedding.

At the end of the post I drew the following conclusion:

Unfortunately I can’t really recommend Tunisair in good conscience. Before flying them I was hoping they’d pleasantly surprise me, though they didn’t. While the food was good and the service well intentioned and even friendly, the seats, terrible pillow & blanket, and lack of attention to detail in the product makes this a below average business class product.

In the comments section of the post, reader AdamR left the following comment, which raises an interesting point:

We read a lot of “It was not a pleasant flight but I wouldn’t go out of my way to avoid them.” But it seems no matter how poor the service, you always say that which is to say it doesn’t mean anything if there are no airlines you would avoid. So, aside from maybe your flight on China Eastern (with the smoking crew), where do you draw your line for airlines that you would *actively* avoid because the hard and soft product are so abysmal? I may have missed it in previous reports but I’m curious to know if you have a quantitative/qualitative line that must be crossed.

I know it can send a mixed message that I write a negative review of an experience, but then say “I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to avoid them,” so let me explain.

Yes, I’m an airline product geek, so personally I’d go way out of my way to fly a product I found good, interesting, etc., since for me getting there is much of the fun. But I also recognize that for a lot of people, the goal is simply to get from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible.

For example, as much as first class is significantly more luxurious than business class, I often find that I arrive most well rested in business class. That’s because I don’t feel the need to maximize every aspect of the experience as much. In other words, in business class I may go straight to sleep, while in first class I want to enjoy the champagne and have a five course meal, which often gets in the way of arriving well rested.

This is where the above comment about Tunisair comes into play. Let me give an example. Say you’re trying to fly business class from Montreal to Tunis. The most direct option is on Tunisair, with an uncomfortable angled seat and bad bedding.

I’d say the best business class product, on the other hand, is Air France business class through Paris, which gets you a reverse herringbone seat on the transatlantic flight.

So you might think that’s the better option, but is it really? Your options here are:

  • A great transatlantic flight, though in reality you’ll only get at most 2-3 hours of sleep if you want to eat, and even if you don’t want to eat, you may very well be woken up by the noise, smell, light, etc.; then you have an 85 minute connection (assuming there’s no delay, because if there is you’ll miss it and possibly spend hours at the airport), and then a 2hr25min flight in a horrible intra-Europe economy seat that has a blocked middle seat

  • Be moderately comfortable for 8hr20min, not have to worry about a connection, etc.; maybe you won’t be able to sleep on the flight, but your travel time is 2hr30min shorter, and I think a 2hr30min nap in a bed on the ground is more effective than what you get on the flight from Montreal to Paris, plus you get to avoid the terrible intra-Europe business class

Similarly, I flew Meridiana on Saturday, and as I did, I almost thought to myself that it’s not a bad way to get to Naples from New York. I suck at sleeping on non-flat surfaces, but I managed to nap for a bit, and even if I was otherwise sitting around, I found that more comfortable than a two hour intra-Europe flight, plus a layover.

Conversely, on my flight from Munich to Naples, the couple across from me had just connected from the US and had a short connection, and were fuming the entire flight about the fact that their bags had misconnected. The wife was yelling at the husband almost the entire flight, and in retrospect I thought to myself that they wouldn’t have had that issue if they just booked the nonstop.

So where does that leave things? Am I admitting that my reviews are completely worthless, and you shouldn’t bother chasing certain airlines? No, absolutely not:

  • For many of us, getting there is some of the fun, and we enjoy taking the long way to try new products; nothing is changing there
  • For many trips, the only choices available involve connections, so you very much can choose between several quality airlines (ie, Los Angeles to Bali, New York to Bangalore, Chicago to Nice, etc.)

Are there any airlines I’d absolutely avoid? As AdamR hinted at above, I’d say the only airlines worth avoiding are ones that make you actively uncomfortable. For me that was China Eastern from Los Angeles to Shanghai, given the smell of smoke the entire flight. Other than that, I don’t know if there are any other airlines I’d totally go out of my way to avoid.

Bottom line

There are lots of us airline product geeks who enjoy going out of our way to try the best airlines. However, I think it’s at least worth acknowledging that it can often make sense to compromise comfort for convenience. For many people travel is extremely stressful, and that’s only amplified when connections are involved.

What do you guys think — is there merit to flying a worse product on a nonstop flight rather than a better product with a connection? Where do you draw the line?

Comments

  1. Great post. I feel the exact same way when people say “I’d never fly Southwest.” Why not? Even if you hate the boarding process, hate the fact that there’s no F, hate the less lucrative FF program (though I have good reasons to contradict you on all those counts) there are absolutely times when they run nonstop flights no one else does.

    Never rule any travel option out because it’s “worse.” Just use it when appropriate

  2. The older I get and the more I travel, the more I value direct flights over indirects with frustrating connections. For example, recently I needed to get from London to Boston. I could have used miles to fly J but there was no direct availability so would have involved changing in JFK or ORD. This would have added hours to the trip, cost, what 80,000 Avios in J plus fees and surcharges of £600+ and I wouldn’t have arrived until very late night.
    Instead I booked Norwegian direct, leaving at a perfect time, in Y for £149. Was it as comfortable as J would have been? Of course not, but it was so much easier being a direct flight. We arrived relaxed, early and grateful for the decision.

  3. You don’t know if a direct flight might be prioritized over a comfortable flight – this is why you need to review the product, not hedge about “maybes”. Come up with a quantitative checklist that you apply to all products and then give your qualitative opinion. Does business class on mallard airline suck? Say so. And an obnoxious couple seated near you is not relevant, unless the airline caters to obnoxious couples…. I don’t want to fly the red eye on “we’re getting a divorce” airline…

  4. Agreed, being based out of AUS I end up on WN a ton because they are the only ones flying direct somewhere. It’s always worth it rather than attempting to stay loyal to anybody else and have to make a connection. Great when I have the companion pass, not as great since I’ll lose that at the end of 2017.

  5. The only one airline I would absolutely avoid is Ryanair. I’d rather stay at home than fly them.

  6. Agreed. I recently flew United First and British Business transatlantic (probably worst-in-breed in each category) and both were perfectly pleasant. Your reviews are still valuable for telling us what products are better than others, but at the end of the day, inferior luxury is still luxury.

  7. If you have family (wife and kids) you will do whatever it takes to get home the sooner you can. I use to fly a lot for business when I was young and sometimes got 3 flights including changing airlines and terminal instead of flying on the same airline just for having a better experience. Nowadays, I get the quickest and easiest way to get home.

    On another subject, why is it so difficult for airlines to have a decent pillow and blanket on premium cabins? Almost all your posts show that either both or one of them is really bad.

  8. I’ve always been tempted by Meridiana as well, given the cheap fares and convenience factor. But what makes me most hesitant to fly them, and other “bad airlines”, is the safety factor. As someone with a moderate fear of flying, I worry about flying a 30 year old 767 operated by a cheaper airline (which in my mind, equates to less well paid maintenance staff, less due diligence, etc.), as it seems like there’s something more likely to go wrong than on a 10 year old 777 operated by a legacy carrier.

  9. Has anyone flown China Eastern from LAX to China or Korea? Their economy is dirt cheap so I’m wondering if they’re as bad as the reviews make them appear?

  10. @Alex S. I only feel that way about Allegiant because it is VERY well known that they cut costs on safety. However, there are some airlines that I may bore myself to death on i.e. AA 757/767, UIA, Meridiana, etc. but, I would fly those airlines in business.

  11. @Alex S hehe dude you wouldn’t believe some of the airlines and airliners I’ve been on, planes older than my father, planes that looked like they would fall apart if you gave them a dirty look, maintained by guys who look like they never seen a plane before.
    So far I’ve survived but what experiences lol.

  12. I’ll give you an example of the opposite case. I fly to Beijing and Tokyo from the east coast US on a regular basis. There are direct flights on United 777’s in Business, but in a 2-4-2 configuration. The other option for about the same price (and often less), is to transfer via Toronto on Air Canada. They have a 1-2-1 configuration.

    For business trips, I will take the Air Canada option every time. It’s such a long flight, when everyone is on different schedules. I don’t want to be stuck in a middle seat in the “4” section of the 2-4-2 on United, nor do I want a seat where I will have to step over my neighbor or they have to step over me. All-aisle access 1-2-1 is worth the connection.

  13. I agree, though I do think you should give china eastern another try, I’ve flown them a few times and have never smelled smoke in the cabin, so pretty sure you just got very unlucky.

  14. I think the problem with any review is going to be that you have a snapshot experience which may or may not reflect the airline. This makes it really hard to definitively say, “you should avoid flying XYZ” — especially given how many airlines are simply inconsistent on both service and equipment. For me, I’m 6’2 and draw the line on flights where I will be actively uncomfortable (as an example, the middle seat on any airline with 10-across in Y). For anything else, it’s a balance of convenience and comfort.

  15. In most cases I’d take the better long haul cabin with a connecting flight provided the connecting flight isn’t another long flight. A 2 hour 25 minute flight in the crappy European J seating configuration is tolerable.

    I definitely have a “no fly” list I’ve developed as a result of your reviews and my own experience and at the top is China Eastern – and they don’t deserve a second look! Please invest your valuable time on other airline products!

  16. You can’t take Mr. Lucky as a gold standard. You should read this as a point of information and apply it to your situation. You are paying for what you want in a flight, not for what he wants in a flight.

  17. Do you have an opinion on UTair? One option to get to DYU is via RKO on UTair vs via IST on Turkish.

  18. Life is too short to fly Spirit (in part because of their operational reliability issues).

  19. At the level of Tunisair it is still acceptable to fly the airline if ending in Tunisia. Now the best Tunisair experience you will have it on Montreal. But on London-Tunis, as you know.. i would consider RAM or Turkish or Egyptair or RJ and dare the detour if a real medium-haul business seat is what i need. The only NO air carrier would be the unsafe to fly, knowing bad safety record, and these are rare today, at least in the Northern hemisphere!

  20. @Pat. “inferior luxury is still luxury”. … I love it, that put a smile on my face. :))

  21. Safety is the main factor that would make me totally rule out an airline. I can handle being uncomfortable for a few hours to save some money on a fare, but no saving is worth your life. I think this gets overlooked these days when we are all searching for the cheapest fare on the internet.

    It is interesting that there is not really a easy correlation between standard of service and safety. I have heard lots of bad things about the service on China Eastern, but they do have a 7 star IOTA rating. Whereas Garuda Indonesia is generally praised for their service, but they only have a 4 star rating, which just about rules them out for me.

  22. Interesting article and comments; probably some frequent flyers have a ‘blacklist’ of airlines to avoid and, some have preferable airlines. Me too – for example one of my blacklisted airlines was Northworst (but, back in the day, Northwest Orient was good) and, a positive ones are Cathay Pacific and Bangkok Airways (even on short Udon Thani-Bangkok flight airline playing cards are available). It is amazing how a little effort in service, food, cleanliness, etc can go a long way to cultivating flyer satisfaction.

    One of the interesting ingredients of your reviews is how a culture (with her foods, service, colour, etc) can be infused on an airline; that is how the same 787 flight from A to B can be a different experience depending upon the local culture of Airline.

    Thank you for your honest reviews including your (recent) honest reviews of TunisAir and Air Serbia. I just loved your review of your previous Air Serbia flight when you were served Brandy shots out of Belgrade

  23. @Joe John
    I flew with China Eastern many times and I’ve never smelled smoke in the cabin.
    I understand Lucky’s impression — who would have a good impression of an airline if, say, a big accident happened to its plane when he’s flying with that airline for the first time?

  24. For me personally, United is at the top of my no-fly list. That may be ridiculous, given that I’ve flown them exactly once (they managed to misconnect my bags that time, delivered them at midnight after I landed at 6pm, and had the least helpful phone agents I’ve ever dealt with). But between all their recent fiascos (we all know the one I’m referring to) and the fact that you have to pay for overhead bin space, I’m going to go with avoiding a legacy carrier that’s run like it’s Spirit.

    In general, though, I waver somewhere between comfort and convenience. I almost always fly economy (alas, being a grad student and all that), but I do tend to stick to direct routes for flying home within the U.S. and with Delta/Air France if I can because I personally always enjoy the experience, even in economy (though I know this is a point of contention around here).

  25. I don’t fly regularly as some, but last year was my first flight on the 787 family, a QR 788. I was flying Y class, and read horror stories about the seating etc. in the 787 and specifically in Y class.

    However, in researching the seat selection, and reading about it on many sites such as SeatGuru, I chose our seats.

    Now, after 4 legs on the 788 (well 3, actually, equipment was changed on the last leg to a 777), I have very little to complain about, even in Y Class. I am just over 6.0′, and while the leg space was compact, it was not uncomfortable. Even the IFE box under the seat in front of you, in the window seats was not THAT bad. Overall, my flight experience on the 4 legs with QR was excellent, and recommend them to anyone, if QR is flying your route. Even the stopovers in Doha were not bad, and our luggage followed us all the way without a problem.

    That being said, I have almost no experience flying business or first class internationally, but after reading this blog and the respective posts, I think I should give it a try. For the experience, if nothing else.

    So yes, a review like on this site are merely a snapshot of the experience, the reviewer can end up having a terrible time, but the next passenger might have an amazing experience. I fly regularly for business domestically, and have my airline of choice there, and have also seen some bad reviews of the same flight I was on, while I had no problems. Go figure!

  26. Jetstar! I will do (almost) anything to avoid Jetstar although frequently it means far less options for me and sometimes even overnights in a hotel. And this is on Australian domestic flights that are frequently 2-3 hours max. To me they are just so bad, the experience so horrible that I cannot bear it. Internationally I have a whitelist rather then a blacklist and if it isn’t a 1-2-1 layout and doesn’t have Wifi it’s not on my whitelist. I’m spoiled being so used to flying short hauls in QF a330’s with 1-2-1 lie flat seating at least several times a week so my expectations are set rather high I will admit.

  27. exactly! You hit the nail on the head with this post. Makes a lot of sense. While maybe you wouldn’t actively look to book this flight, you wouldn’t take a crazy alternative to avoid it.

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