There are but a handful of more over-used words in the English language than "award-winning.'' I'm award-winning, you're award-winning, we're all award-winning. Still, there is undeniably a feel-good factor in winning an award, and some awards do mean something: The Nobel Prize, the Man Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur 'genius' grant, and some others.
In the travel and entertainment fields, the Zagat Awards mean something - along with awards from Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure, Global Traveler and a few others. Starting out by publishing grassrootsy dining guides written by ordinary people, Zagat in effect anticipated the user-written reviews now found everywhere on the Net. In the meantime, Zagat has grown into something of a media empire - an empire that gives out awards, of course.
All of which brings us to Zagat's 2009 Airline Survey of passengers and travel agents. The results were recently announced, and the winner is - the envelope, please - Singapore Airlines, which won for best international carrier, as well as for best premium class and best economy class. No surprise; Singapore wins a lot of awards, partly because the airline is indeed very good and partly because it carries a halo effect and voters automatically think of Singapore.
Cathay Pacific Airways and Emirates Airways tied for second in premium class, with Emirates also winning second for its economy class service. Virgin Atlantic Airways and Air New Zealand deadlocked for third in premium class, with All Nippon Airways, Air New Zealand and Thai Airways bunching up at third for economy class.
"The 2009 Airline Survey ... covered 73 international airlines and 16 domestic U.S. carriers, rating premium and economy classes on a 30-point scale, covering factors such as comfort, food, in-flight entertainment and luggage polices,'' Zagat said in a statement.
The top U.S. carrier? Continental Airlines, though it scored only 15 points on the 30-point scale. I recently flew from London to New York with Continental. I liked the airline, but its relatively anemic Zagat score shows - accurately, I think, due to aging fleets and flawed customer service - just how far even the best U.S. carriers have fallen compared to the world's best.
In a statement announcing the airline awards, Tim Zagat, CEO of Zagat Survey, sought to explain the low scores of Continental - and lower scores by other U.S. carriers - thusly:
"The newer airlines continue to do well in the survey. Being less expensive to operate, they can therefore afford to provide better service.''
With all due respect to Tim Zagat and his company's accomplishments, I don't think so.
Being new isn't the reason for success - as shown by the overall winner. Singapore Airlines traces its roots to 1947. It became known by its present name in 1972, when it hived off from Malaysian Airlines. The carrier is nearly 40 years old by the most conservative estimate.
Cathay Pacific? Founded in 1946. ANA? Almost as old. Virgin Atlantic? It's been flying since the 1980s. Air New Zealand is not new, nor is Thai. The only young carrier in the winners' circle is Emirates, and Emirates is unusual because it is owned and subsidized by the government of Dubai and fueled by petrodollars - hardly a common business model.
No, the reason some airlines please customers much more than other airlines do has little to do with age. It's because they want to please customers. They make customer service a priority and they work at it. Having adequate funding always helps, to be sure, but staff training, staff attitudes and management priorities shape airlines - and every other business.
That's the secret of success in the travel field - and it's an open secret.