How I Make My Airline Choices

airline choices
The 787 Dreamliner makes United a serious choice for flights to Asia – now it needs to keep up to South America.

I’m not one to tell an airline "I’ll never fly you again." But I definitely have a pecking order for my airline choices. And I will absolutely pay more for an airline I prefer. I wonder how many other people are in the same – ahem – plane of existence (I thought "same boat" would be mixing my metaphors). So tell me about your airline packing order, and I’ll share mine with you -- I’m going to break my list our by domestic and international, base on those I’ve flown before. Airline alliance membership continues to be a huge factor for me, and I’m often willing to shell out more to stick with my preferred Star Alliance. And I’d also like to here what makes you make your airline choices – what’s beyond the ticket price for you?

For Those Little Domestic Trips

airline choices
Delta could become a bigger option in my future.

United Airlines
I have the overwhelming majority of my frequent flier miles through the United Airlines OnePass, so it’s one of my top airline choices. I started flying Continental about 15 years ago, and stayed on-board during the United merger. I’ve never had a bad experience -- and I’ve even had a few great flights. Booking is always easy, though I’ve sometimes had to chase down my mileage credits. Plus, United Airlines is based at my favorite terminal at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Extra bonus!

Delta Air Lines
I don’t fly Delta very often. Sky Harbor isn’t a hub, and I haven’t collected a fistful of miles or anything. Most of them have been somewhat accidental. But I also haven’t had any truly bad experiences (I was even able to endure a poopy-diaper sort of stink on a flight to Minneapolis). Since I don’t fly Delta very often, I don’t hoard SKyMiles like Smaug guarding his gold – and it’s easy to donate SkyMiles to my preferred charity -- you won’t believe how important air miles are to nonprofit organizations.

airline choices
Southwest is a nonfactor because of its loyalty program.

American Airlines/US Air
The merger between these two airlines has really made them fall in my rankings. Over the past few months, I’ve tried a few times to merge my accounts. Every single time, I got "Our system is down" or "Your records do not match" messages. Blah.

American is also eager to talk about its fleet renewal, but I still see a lot of silver MD80s flying over Phoenix -- though I don’t mind the US Air domestic fleet. I know this is the domestic portion of this post, but I have avoided flying these airlines on international routes: American’s fleet is still pretty old, and I really dislike the US Airways choice of the Airbus A330 (my least-favorite airliner). The combined mega-airline isn’t doing itself any favors with its continuing difficulties in merging my AAdvantage and Dividend Miles accounts.

airline choices
Asiana flights are always amazing … now, if only it went to more destinations!

Southwest Airlines
Some people love Southwest Airlines. I get it. The employees are genuinely nice and the fleet is pretty modern. But when I fly, I want air miles that I can apply to my big trips -- my international, intercontinental adventures. Southwest Airlines makes itself a nonfactor as one of my airline choices with a loyalty program that does nothing to help me reach exotic destinations.

For My International Adventures Abroad
This is a tough category. My airline choices for international flights are closely linked to my destination. If I had my way, Air New Zealand and Asiana Airlines would be able to take me anywhere I want to go. But nope, that’s not the reality. So let me break it out by region.

airline choices
Norwegian Air Shuttle could also benefit from an airline alliance.

Asia
Asiana Airlines stand out among my other airline choices anywhere in Asia, even if flying through the Incheon hub costs me a bit of time. I flew All Nippon Airways on my last trip to Asia – and while its service absolutely schools US-based airlines, it still takes a backseat to Asiana.

Now, Hawaiian Airlines remains an intriguing option I haven’t yet tried. It flies directly from Phoenix to Honolulu, and then from many points to Asia and Oceania. The only not-so-great factor is the potentially awful choice of the Airbus A330; if Hawaiian Airlines was wise enough to equip them with air conditioning nozzles at every seat (which SAS and Vietnam Airlines do not do), I’d be OK with the A330.

United Airlines is a factor as one of my airline choices – the crew of its 787 flight from Shanghai to Los Angeles International Airport does credit to the airline. But it still falls short of Asiana or All Nippon Airways if all things are equal.

airline choices
I’d like to give one of the Virgin airlines a shot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Europe
I have a dilemma here: I want to pick Norwegian Air Shuttle – yep, a low-cost carrier. Its shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet puts it above SAS and its Airbuses. And even though there’s a British Airways flight to London directly from Phoenix, I’m more likely to start my trip in Scandinavia -- and I haven’t heard many frequent travelers sing the praises of British Airways. On the other hand, I’ve experienced great service on every single Norwegian Air Shuttle flight. Granted, those were short-haul flights. But still, I think that will translate well to intercontinental flights. But a flight on Norwegian Air Shuttle would net me zero airline miles. That doesn’t sit well for one of my airline choices. If it’s part of an airline alliance, I don’t know about it. I’d be thrilled to be wrong about this.

So where does this leave me? With Air New Zealand. I can take a short flight to Los Angeles International Airport and grab an Air New Zealand flight to London. The quick stopover nets me an excellent airline, a shiny new Boeing 777 and a fistful of air miles on a Star Alliance member airline.

South America
It’s hard to get to South America from Phoenix on anything but American Airlines or United Airlines. I’ll give the nod to United Airlines – as I have twice – since it’s a Star Alliance member and is generally decent.

But I haven’t been able to try a South American carrier like TAM or LAN. That’s pretty disappointing.

One Airline I’d Love to Try

I already mentioned the Norwegian Air Shuttle intercontinental flights. But I’d also be eager to try any Virgin airline – America, Atlantic or Australia. I’m trying to parse its codeshare agreements, which seem all over the board.

There are no Virgin America flights from Sky Harbor, though. If that ever changes, I’d be up for some Virgin America flights. The praise-complaint ratio for Virgin airlines remains far into the positive, so I’d consider this great news.

Asiana Airlines Review: 5 Flights

Asiana Airlines review
Rolling to the gate next to an Asiana 747 at Tokyo Narita.

This just wouldn’t be an Asiana Airlines review without mentioning my breakfast choice: spicy octopus with rice. Yes, this is my kind of airline.

This is just eight hours into my handful of Asiana Airlines flights spanning the Pacific, with shorter flights to Jeju Island and Tokyo. During these five flights, I got to know Asiana pretty well. And I have some impressions to share about how Asiana Airlines scores for international flights. I admit, I have no other Asian airlines to compare it to. But it stacks up well for any airline, winning a number of Skytrax awards over the years. To get much better, you’d have to step up to Emirates business class, which has an impressive reputation with flyers.

1. Let’s loop back to that food. Other meals including a traditional bi bim bap, bulgogi, and tempura chicken and shrimp. Most of the meals included fresh fruit. Hands down, it was the tastiest and healthiest airline food I’ve ever encountered. It easily dethrones the Qantas meals, which were decent but nothing memorable. But I’ll never forget spooning marinated beef, bean paste and rice into a huge lettuce leaf, folding it into a burrito and munching away. I was more than a bit amused that, half the time, the flight attendants didn’t ask if we wanted to the squeeze tubes full of tasty hot chili sauce. They probably hadn’t encountered many Arizonans -- many of us crave spiciness in any form.

The Travel Class cabin of an Asiana 777, Asiana Airlines review
The Travel Class cabin of an Asiana 777

2. In-flight entertainment was everything it should be for international flights. I caught up on my silly superhero movies, plus the latest Star Trek. No hiccups from the equipment at all, and it was easy enough to work. I might’ve expected Asian airlines to be even more slick and hi-tech. But it was just solid, no-fuss equipment.

3. The cabins were immaculate whether I was aboard an A320 or a 777. Asiana’s 767s are probably no spring chickens, but they looked great. A question for Asiana – I could’ve sworn our 1:30 flight (Oct. 15) from Narita to Incheon was a 767 configured in 3-3-3 rather than the usual 2-3-2. Was I overdosing on the spicy chili sauce, or is that some unusual 767? Bottom line: Whatever I flew, I have to mention the cleanliness in my Asiana Airlines review.

4. From the check-in counter to the cabin, every Asiana employee was helpful and welcoming – no exceptions. They were all efficiency, and they said everything with a smile. They weren’t quite as jocular as Air New Zealand or Qantas, but who is?

Asiana Airlines review
Dinner is served – bi bim bap! I usually take other travel bloggers to task for posting food photos – but I think this warrants breaking my own rule. I mean, steamed pumpkin, kimchi, fresh veggies … that’s out-of-the-ordinary!

5. There was a bit of weirdness the moment our flight pushed back from the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX on Sept. 30. We’d only moved a few feet when I felt the plane lurch. This led to a few announcements about tire changes, which made us a bit more than two hours late. I didn’t mind, even though international flights are long enough with no delays. I took advantage of the time to read and doze. I’m really curious about what it takes to change tires on a 777 at the gate. Kind of cool, really! Oh, and props to my mostly Korean fellow passengers. They took the delay announcements in stride. Does this cost Asiana Airlines review points? Not really. They seemed to make the time up in the air. And really, we still arrived in the early morning hours.

6. There are only two things that prevent me from flying Asiana Airlines every chance I get: First, Seoul is its only hub. Second, I always love trying a carrier based in the country I’m visiting. So if I go to another Asian country, I’d want to fly some different Asian airlines just to sample its airborne culture. Asiana’s competitive fares and excellent in-flight service would give me second thoughts about booking on another airline if it’s possible to use them, though. A follow-up Asiana Airlines review would also be interesting.

Asiana Airlines review
Our ride … with all the sweet hook-ups.

7. Something else odd – most of our international flights were only about 75 percent full. The busiest ones were the flights to and from Tokyo. But the trans-Pacific flights had plenty of empty seats. That’s very nice, of course, since it gave Sarah and I some room to stretch out.

8. In one way, Asiana Airlines might learn from fellow Asian airlines JAL and ANA: Both these Japanese airlines sell small trinkets with their logos on them at Narita. Asiana should do the same at Seoul. I would definitely add an Asiana t-shirt to my collection of airline stuff – if one was available.

I can honestly say that Asiana deserves its Skytrax Airline of the Year award for 2010. I always insist that getting there is part of the fun, and that my vacation truly starts when I step aboard the plane for international flights. Asiana did everything right and put the Republic of Korea’s best foot forward. Maybe next time, I’ll get to try some other Asian airlines, too.

Check out Asiana Airlines on Twitter!

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