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British Airways is getting better and American Airlines is deteriorating in the opinion of frequent fliers from around the world who routinely file reports with a British research company.

Skytrax, which shares some of its findings on its Web site ( http://www.airlinequality.com), recently upgraded British Airways to five stars while reducing American to three. As for Air Canada, it's holding steady at four stars, while Calgary-based WestJet has just made its first appearance on the site with a three-star rating.

The Skytrax grades are based on detailed reports, filed on a volunteer basis, by more than 9,000 business travellers scattered around the world (about 2,000 of them from North America). Those accepted to participate must make at least 14 long flights or 16 short flights each year. Most panel members are recruited through travel managers with large corporations.

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Anyone, however, can go to the site and submit an "opinion" about any carrier. Skytrax weeds out abusive and libellous comments as well as all submissions from airline employees. The rest are posted on the Skytrax Web site, but the company makes clear these are personal comments only.

Here's a typical "opinion" about Air Canada posted by a Robert Harris: "I can't say that I've ever had a bad flight, but I haven't had a great one either."

The Skytrax official panel gives a more definitive breakdown of Air Canada's offerings. It gives the carrier five stars in only one category (safety procedures and systems). Air Canada's lowest ratings, three stars, are for economy-class catering and economy-class service. It gets four stars for everything else, from airport services to in-flight entertainment.

When Skytrax compares the business-class product of all airlines flying across the Atlantic, Air Canada makes a respectable showing in fourth place. The carrier shouldn't rest on its laurels, however. First place in the category goes to Virgin Atlantic, which went into direct competition with Air Canada yesterday on the Toronto-London route. None of the carriers listed in second, third and fifth place across the Atlantic (Aer Lingus, Continental and Lauda Air) offer service out of Canada.

Air Canada can gain some peace of mind from a Skytrax World Business Class Survey conducted in 2000. It showed that Air Canada and its partner airlines belonging to the Star Alliance ranked collectively ahead of the Oneworld group of airlines. Overall, Air Canada ranked 11th in the survey, well above Lufthansa (18th), United (19th), American (32nd) and Varig (61st).

As for WestJet, it gets four stars in three categories (airport services, safety procedures & systems and economy class cabin staff), but only three stars for economy class catering, economy class seating and economy class overall. The carrier has only one class.

Looking at individual airlines on a global basis, Skytrax gives its top five-star rating to only six airlines: Ansett Australia, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines. Skytrax recently declared Emirates, the flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates, its "airline of the year" for 2001. That award resulted from 2.7 million "votes" cast by travellers from around the world. Skytrax says this may be the world's largest passenger survey. It included Internet voting, input from the travel panel, telephone interviews conducted in Europe, Asia, North America and the Gulf regions, and passenger interviews conducted at airports around the world, according to Alastair Weaver, director of research and surveys with Skytrax.

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Only one airline, Cuba's Cubana, receives one star from Skytrax. While it earns single stars in most categories, it does garner three stars for its economy class overall, its economy-class seating and its economy-class cabin staff.

Airline rankings of a different kind can be found in the June 11 issue of Forbes. The magazine analyzed statistics on cancelled flights, lost luggage and staff rudeness to find "America's worst airline." The loser was America West, which Forbes calls "consistently weak in most areas." Trans World, which was recently acquired by American Airlines, ranks second worst with United next from the bottom.

Delta, on the other hand, ranks at the top with the notation that it is "best at honouring seat reservations." Next best, in order, are Southwest, Alaska, US Airways and American. The study included only U.S.-based airlines.

dmcarthur@globeandmail.ca

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