The survey of 7,498 frequent flyers revealed--no stunning surprise here--that travelers are not ecstatic about flying. Some of the more colorful comments from the survey: "I'd rather be a package on FedEx"; "If they could have pay toilets, they would"; "The legroom is great if you're a yard gnome"; "Only good thing about first class these days is that you get to leave the plane first."
Then there's this classic, which would be funny if it were on "Seinfeld." "When asked what kind of chicken they had, one traveler replied: 'the dead kind'."
Still, given their choice, flyers Continental, JetBlue, Midwest, Southwest and Virgin America are the way to go, domestically.
One clear trend among domestic carriers--a trend one sees mirrored in other market segments--is that smaller startups with new fleets and a clear point of differentiation seem to please customers.
Midwest, which has taken top honors in the last eight Zagat surveys, has staked a claim in the economy-carrier segment with a strategy of avoiding major hubs and touting value-adds like better snacks and even its own branded line of cookies. Virgin and JetBlue were Nos. 2 and 3. They were followed by Frontier and Hawaiian. For domestic premium, Virgin America, Continental, Hawaiian, Alaska and AirTran won.
Zagat, which ranks domestic air service on a 30-point scale, said that since 1990 the quality ratings of American Airlines, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways have decreased anywhere from five to nine points.
International carriers fared much better than domestics, with Singapore Airlines taking top honors in every category. Cathay Pacific, Virgin Atlantic, Emirates Airline and ANA did well in the survey.
Also, try to fly into Tampa and Hong Kong, if you can--although that means, presumably, a long boat ride for those visiting relatives in Metuchen. New Yorkers might, in fact, want to go Greyhound: Zagat says LaGuardia and JFK finished last in almost every category.
In the survey, each airline was rated on its premium and economy service, separately, for both domestic and overseas service.
The frequent flyers who participated averaged nearly 20 flights last year. Per Zagat, 61% of the respondents favored the enactment of the Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, which, among other things, guarantees compensation for long flight delays.