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After spending weeks and months building up your stash of miles, it can be pretty difficult to figure out which airlines make for a worthy redemption. TPG’s extensive catalog of flight reviews is a great place to start. But, at the end of the day, we all care about different things when we travel, everything from avoiding a bad crew experience to the Champagne selection. Enter Skytrax, a UK-based airline consulting firm that’s assumed the responsibility of rating everything in commercial aviation, from airlines to lounges to airports, all the way down to individual terminals.

In the last few days, two interesting pieces of news have emerged pertaining to Skytrax, as major international airlines saw their ratings slip. One Mile At A Time noticed that the Skytrax ratings had been updated and the list of five-star airlines dwindled as Etihad was downgraded to four stars. While Etihad had only held the elusive five-star rating since 2016, it is currently mired in a massive cost-cutting effort that management hopes will reverse several years of billion-dollar losses. Given the belt-tightening now underway, it may not be a huge surprise that Etihad didn’t meet the five-star cutoff.

But perhaps the more surprising story involved Turkish Airlines, which was downgraded from four stars to three stars, putting it in the same category as China Eastern, Air India and LOT Polish, to name a few. For Turkish, the drop could be seen as a slight to an airline that — arguably — offers the best business-class catering out there. And when you consider the fact that Turkish Airlines operates out of a brand-new airport in Istanbul with brand-new world class lounges and is introducing a new business-class seat on its Boeing 787s later this year, the lower rating will be surprising to some.

All of this begs the question: What exactly goes into Skytrax’s ratings, and are the ratings as objective as they claim to be?

MORE: Etihad: Reviews, Guides, and News

The Quest for Five Stars

Skytrax says its airline ratings are based on an analysis of 500 to 800 different elements of the passenger experience across every class of service that an airline offers. With Etihad out of the mix, there are currently 10 airlines that have a certified five-star rating from Skytrax:

  • ANA
  • Asiana
  • Cathay Pacific
  • EVA Air
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Hainan
  • Japan Airlines
  • Lufthansa
  • Qatar Airways
  • Singapore Airlines

Some of these are no-brainers; I still rank my economy flight on Singapore’s Airbus A380 from New York JFK to Frankfurt (FRA) as one of the most comfortable flights of my life. The food was better than “just edible,” it was actually pretty tasty. And the service was as good and personable as what I received in Lufthansa first class on my connection.

Speaking of Lufthansa, not all of these ratings make perfect sense. While airlines are not allowed to explicitly pay for a higher rating, they are allowed (and encouraged) to purchase consulting services from Skytrax — something that some say creates an inherent conflict of interest. Skytrax makes the star rating and logos available to airlines and airports for free and does not charge carriers for those marketing materials. We’ve reached out to Skytrax for comment on their rating system as well as the recent downgrades to Turkish and Etihad, but haven’t heard back at the time of publication. We’ll be sure to update this post if we get a response.

Airlines are rated on elements of the following categories:

  • Airport services
  • Lounges
  • Onboard product (long-haul and short-haul)
  • Cabin crew

No one is disputing that Lufthansa’s first class can be one of the best in the world when everything goes right, but a five-star airline requires an industry-leading passenger experience across all three cabins. Lufthansa starts to slip as you move further back in the plane. Most of Lufthansa’s long-haul fleet features an outdated 2-2-2 layout in business class, including on its newly delivered A350 aircraft.

Photo by Zach Honig/TPG.

While Skytrax gives Lufthansa only four stars for its seat comfort and personal space, the four-and-a-half stars for the safety video and cabin temperature are clearly enough of a saving grace.

To me, the real kicker is the four-and-a-half-star rating Lufthansa gets for its short-haul business class. That compares to four stars for most European carriers and three-and-a-half for some like British Airways and TAP Portugal. While there are certainly some differences in the ground services and fleet age, the vast majority of intra-Europe business class consists of regular economy seats with a middle seat blocked off. While I’m sure you could nitpick a difference if you were trying to support a specific rating, I haven’t noticed any difference at all in the short-haul business class offerings of the European airlines I’ve flown (Lufthansa, British Airways and Swiss).

Business-class seats aboard the A321 intra-Europe from Madrid-Munich.

Gulf Confusion

Another case I find peculiar is that of Qatar (five stars) vs. Emirates (four stars). While Qatar gets a perfect five stars for its first-class lounge in Doha, Emirates received some less-than-perfect ratings in several categories in the Skytrax assessment. Among those was four-and-a-half stars for “seat availability and comfort.” Anyone who’s ever been to Emirates’ first-class lounge in Dubai knows how dubious this assessment is. The first-class lounge stretches the entire length of the terminal, and has capacity for 1,800 passengers at once. I visited during peak rush hour in Dubai (between midnight and 3 a.m.), and I didn’t see more than 10 other people the entire time I was in the lounge. If anything, Emirates has too much first class seating. For the first time ever I found myself complaining that the lounge was actually too big. But if you asked me to rate it on “seat availability and comfort,” I’d have no choice but to give it a top rating.

Both airlines do receive a five-star rating for their first-class products, though it’s worth noting that Emirates operates a first-class cabin on nearly every flight while Qatar only has a handful of first-class-equipped planes. But Emirates “stumbles” to a four-star ranking in business class and economy. You might be thinking that Qatar Airways’ Qsuite is the gold standard for what a business-class experience should look like while Emirates’ could stand to update its business-class seats. That’s fair, but Qatar got it its five-star ranking in 2006, 11 years before Qsuite launched. Qatar’s outdated 2-2-2 international business class is the one that earned it a five-star ranking (sort of like Lufthansa … maybe they’re on to something).

Qatar 777 cabin 2
Photo by Eric Rosen/TPG.

Bottom Line

Numerical rating scales are inherently subjective. If you ask five people to rate the exact same meal on a 1-to-10 scale, you could very well get five different answers. I’m not saying Lufthansa or Qatar are bad airlines, or that they don’t deserve a five-star rating. I’m simply saying that if this is where Skytrax is setting the bar for its highest honor, then you could make the argument that numerous other airlines may deserve it as well. It’s also tough to take this rating seriously when you know that Skytrax makes the majority of its money from the very airlines it “objectively rates.”

Know before you go.

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