For Youngsoo Choi, booking a ticket on an international airline is an easy choice. Choi, who lives in Lewiston, New York, and regularly flies to Seoul, South Korea, strongly prefers Korean Air over American carriers.
“I’ve received quality hospitality from the flight crew,” Choi says. “I’ve also enjoyed flying a new, technologically advanced aircraft that reduces the stress from a 13- to 14-hour flight.”
Choi’s preference for foreign carriers is more than personal. As an associate professor and program coordinator at Niagara University’s College of Hospitality, Sport, and Tourism Management, Choi has an academic interest in the subject and has observed a growing interest in foreign airlines.
It’s no coincidence that international airlines consistently rank higher than their US counterparts, experts say. The latest Skytrax ratings named Qatar Airways the world’s best airline, followed by Singapore Airlines and ANA. The top-performing US carrier, Delta, ranked 30th.
“Many travelers find that foreign airlines offer a better quality of service,” says Rob DelliBovi, founder of RDB Hospitality, a hospitality consultancy. “There is often a feeling that flying with a foreign airline offers a better overall experience.”
By “better,” DelliBovi doesn’t just mean that you get attentive service and comfortable seats, although you do in many cases. It’s also that, when you fly on a foreign carrier, you start to experience that country the moment you board the plane. It’s the perfect wine pairing with lunch on your Air France flight or the slippers that flight attendants hand you on Japan Airlines.
Demand for international flights is strong. Revenue passenger kilometers (a broad industry measure of airline activity) for international flights rose nearly 257% in February compared to last year, according to the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group. Hopper, the airfare app, forecasts that international airfare will match 2019 prices through this month before rising toward $940 round-trip in June. That’s a 15% increase from March. These suggest a busy summer for international air travel, though perhaps not as busy as 2019.
International airlines can also offer more options. For example, carriers such as TAP Air Portugal and Turkish Airlines have programs that allow travelers to stop over at no additional charge or a reduced rate on extended layovers. Airlines designed these programs to introduce visitors to a destination instead of simply using the airline’s hub as a brief stopover.
Some international airlines doubled down on service when others were cutting back, adding new amenities that are practically unheard of in the United States. For example, Turkish Airlines has a “flying chef” in business class who makes meals to order. Ahmet Olmustur, the airline’s chief marketing and sales officer, says it’s a way to stand out from the competition.
“It’s also important when you’re flying for a long period of time and want to arrive at your destination well-fed and rested,” he says.
Flag carriers can afford to compete on service because their governments often subsidize them. But the benefit is to the customer. “They get posh cabins, luxurious lounges, reliability, friendliness of the staff and outstanding in-flight service,” says Drew Sharma, co-founder of TravelInsurance.com.
The benefits don’t stop when things go wrong. “Many foreign carriers have better reimbursement policies in the event of serious delays or cancellations,” says Kimberly Davis, chief executive of Trouvaille Travel International, a travel consultancy. Some are dictated by consumer protection regulations, such as Europe’s EC 261. But others are a matter of airline policy, Davis says.
If you decide to change your mind about flying, you could get a generous credit or even a full refund, Davis says. For example, both Emirates and Qatar Airways have flexible refund policies that give customers two years from the date of the booking to use their credit. And Virgin Atlantic allows customers to make travel-voucher bookings for someone else if they decide not to fly.
Of course, there are also downsides to flying on a foreign airline. One of them is frequency. Some international carriers only serve destinations a few times a week. So if you miss a flight, you might have to settle for one with more connections, or wait a few days for the next nonstop flight.
Foreign carriers often charge more for their tickets than US airlines do. They also offer fewer options for collecting frequent-flyer miles — if you’re into that kind of thing.
These considerations don’t deter customers such as Choi. “Many passengers, including myself, are willing to pay a couple hundred dollars more to an airline which they believe can guarantee higher satisfaction,” he says.
There’s a shortcut for US air travelers who want to experience an international carrier without giving up the connections (or the frequent-flyer miles) from a US airline. Thanks to airline alliances such as Oneworld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam, you can book a ticket on an American carrier but fly on a foreign one. When you book the flight online, pay attention to the “operated by” designation next to the flight; it’s often noted in a small font size, so you may have to look for it. That’s the airline on which you’ll actually fly. In some cases, this may be an international airline. Although you buy your ticket through the US carrier, you’ll fly on the international airline and retain the loyalty benefits of the American one.
The “operated by” trick could save you from a long, unpleasant flight this summer, but it shouldn’t have to. As the gap between US and international airlines widens, there’s a growing realization among air travelers — if not also among airlines — that American carriers have to do better when it comes to service.