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Let's say you come across an airline with an unfamiliar name but a tempting airfare. Would you book it right away? Or, given that we travel in a world of tarmac delays and lost luggage, would you rather see what other flyers think about the airline before making your purchase?
It’s common practice to parse through user reviews when choosing a hotel or restaurant, yet websites that review flights, like Eezeer, Skytrax -- even TripAdvisor -- remain underused, especially when it comes to many smaller or foreign airlines, where traveller reviews could really help. Despite the commonly asked question, “How was your flight?” travellers have not yet gotten into the habit of sharing reviews of their flight online.
Cynics will say that reviews and ratings for airlines don't matter. They think carriers have figured out exactly how the public shops for plane tickets: people buy the cheapest seat, period. But new technology that allows airlines to survey passengers in-flight may someday prove the cynics wrong.
Virgin Atlantic's first A330-300 aircraft, which took flight in April, has a new entertainment system that lets flyers rate in-flight movies via the seatback touch screen. The system allows you see how the rest of the plane voted and also helps the airline decide which movies to feature or drop from its menu. Virgin Atlantic has bought ten planes with the entertainment system, which will slowly be added to its fleet.
Other airlines could adopt this technology and use it to let passengers provide feedback on their own flight experience while in the air, which is easier than asking a traveller to do it on their computer once they get home. If shared publicly, these in-flight surveys could prove useful to other consumers, and the feedback might also help airlines pinpoint which flight crews deserve recognition for providing great customer service.
However, it may be a decade until such in-flight review systems gain wide traction. Airlines are reluctant to spend money on amenities and regulatory bodies are slow to approve new technologies as safe for flight, said Walé Adepoju, chief analyst for the consulting firm IMDC, which helps to develop aircraft-based media and communications.
While we wait for airlines to adopt this idea, here's a quick rundown of the current options for researching airlines:
The biggest player in airline ratings is also the giant of user-generated reviews, TripAdvisor. On its flight search page, you can roll your mouse over an airline's name to see ratings by other travellers, who can score carriers on eight measures, such as punctuality, baggage handling and check-in experience.
Because traveller airline ratings only began in January, few ratings have been submitted. This dearth is especially apparent for less familiar airlines; there were recently no ratings for AirBaltic and only a few for Finnair. But the potential is there. If more people submitted ratings, the site would prove useful for travellers looking for the consensus view on an airline before booking.
The most innovative rating tool to date is Eezeer (pronounced "easier"). Its main service is to connect the Twitter conversations happening between the customer service departments of major airlines like Delta or JetBlue and their passengers. On the plus side, the tool uses the geo-location feature of people's devices to confirm that they truly are where they say they are when they file their comments. Eezeer's apps for Apple and Android devices are also free and easy to consult while on the go. The site is nearly useless for learning about small airlines, though. Since few people are discussing those companies on Twitter at any given moment, Eezeer has little to spotlight.
The granddaddy of airline rating sites is Skytrax (oddly found at airlinequality.com and not skytrax.com). The site ranks airlines by one to five stars (with five stars being the highest "quality") based on annual surveys conducted by a British-based consultancy group. But the ratings don't always line up. Two airlines might be both "four star", such as Air Berlin and Emirates, but their in-flight experiences could be quite different in ways that would annoy one flyer and please another. Skytrax is also the only site that takes plane model into consideration, understanding that on airlines with mixed fleets, new planes often offer a better experience. But the age of the aircraft is considered a very minor factor. The survey has dozens of categories, broken down by first class, business class, premium economy and coach.
It would be helpful if Skytrax provided a quick historical snapshot of rating trends, to see whether service is improving or declining over time. Case in point: in 2006, British Airways had many more stars in individual categories such as "cabin cleanliness", than it does now. Yet you wouldn't know about the airline's recent slippage in some categories by just glancing at the airline's current overall ratings.
For now, Skytrax's is best read for its reviews left by travellers. These opinions can give you a quick idea of what you're flight might be like.
If flight safety is your main concern, you can research accident data from the Flight Safety Foundation at aviation-safety.net. Safety-minded travellers may also be interested in the European Union's airline blacklist, which highlights more than 190 airlines that aren't allowed to fly within the EU but that do fly elsewhere around the globe.
The blacklist is controversial because airlines may be added to it if EU officials find their governments' airline regulators not up to EU standards. For example, all carriers based in the Philippines are banned in the EU due to failed international audits of that country's civil aviation board. But the nation's two largest airlines, Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific, have young fleets and good safety records.
A runner-up to all of these services is Airlikes. This French-based tool has been operating for a year with similar functions for flyers to rate and review airlines. Yet the site is too new to have enough reviews to be useful. Consumers have rated only about 60 airlines so far.
Your best bet: Next time you find an airline with an unfamiliar name but a tempting airfare, you can get a quick sense of what other travellers think about it by reading the ratings on TripAdvisor's flight search tool and the reviews on Skytrax.
What do you think? Should review systems be implemented in-flight? Do review sites work? Would you read airline reviews before booking? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page.
Sean O'Neill is the tech travel columnist for BBC Travel