When it comes to choosing what airline to fly, the bottom line is often, well, the bottom line: how much it costs to get where you need to go. But with all that laser-sharp focus on saving money, it's easy to lose sight of the little things that can make a trip feel like a journey, rather than an endurance test. To remind you of the ways some companies strive to make life at 30,000 feet a treat—or introduce you to new ones you've never heard about—we present to you our unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of airlines that haven't forgotten how to delight passengers—with memorable perks like cuddle-class couches, hilarious in-flight announcements, and even in-flight showers. How many have you flown?
Cuddliest Airline: Air New Zealand
While Richard Branson gets a lot of attention for his Virgin Galactic enterprise, Air New Zealand's been making great strides in a different kind of space exploration—one that even those of us without a spare $200,000 can enjoy. In late 2010, the Auckland-based airline unveiled the Economy Skycouch, a padded, fold-out seat extension that allows a pair (or trio) of passengers to stretch out side by side for those longest of long-haul flights—say, between Los Angeles and Auckland. The feature, unsurprisingly, was an instant hit. To get the "cuddle class" experience, travelers need to buy a third seat at half off, typically an extra $500 to $800 for an overnight flight—almost certainly less than the cost of upgrading two coach seats to first class. And while about half the buyers so far have been couples, families traveling with small children have happily been opting for the upgrade, too. Did we say great strides? More like a giant leap—for nap time.
Funniest Airline: Kulula Airlines
In addition to being South Africa's pioneering low-cost airline—it was the first of its kind to launch there, in 2001—Kulula Airlines, based in Johannesburg, aspires to be the world's funniest airline. Before you even board, there's a sight gag: The bright-green planes are painted with "This Way Up" signs or instructional diagrams pointing out the location of the landing gear, the loo, and the co-captain (labeled, "the other pilot on the PA system"). Then there's the in-flight banter, with gems like, "If you don't like our service, we have six emergency exits," and "Cabin crew is coming down the aisle to make sure that your seat belts are on and your shoes match your outfit." The animated airline's most recent prank? Issuing a press release on April 1 touting their new fleet of Boeing 737-800 seaplanes, which would make water landings near Cape Town, Durban, and Gauteng to reduce congestion on South Africa's runways. In their words, "Kulula has never been scared of navigating unchartered waters, and once launched, we're sure it will go swimmingly." Fortunately, there's no two-drink minimum for this airborne comedy show—and even if there were, it wouldn't cost much. "Drinks with zing," as alcoholic beverages are labeled on the in-flight menu, start under $2 each.
Most Irresistible Budget-Conscious Airline: Ryanair
No one pinches every possible penny as assiduously as Ryanair, the ultra-low-cost Irish carrier. Some of its shameless antics are mythical, though: The airline has never charged for the use of toilets, introduced standing-room-only sections, or sold passengers porn via handheld devices—despite rumors to the contrary. But Ryanair does commit enough acts of random irritation to upset even a Zen Buddhist. The skinflint airline charges a fee of about $10 to charge tickets to an American credit card, a fee to check in either online or at the airport, and a fee of about $16 to sit in an exit row seat. Once onboard, the hassles continue. The seatbacks don't have pockets; the airline instead prints the emergency instructions on the backs of the seats themselves. During a flight, Ryanair crew members constantly hawk snacks, lottery tickets, and smokeless cigarettes. (For a full list of the airline's sins, see ihateryanair.org.) Yet despite it all, Ryanair remains one of Europe's most-flown carriers. Sure, people may love to hate it, but few budget-conscious travelers seem able to resist its siren song of low fares.
Best Major U.S. Airline for Baggage Handling: Delta (NYSE:DAL)
If you've ever thought you were singularly cursed with bad luggage luck, think again: A whopping 42 million bags (on average) are misplaced by airlines worldwide each year. Then, book your next flight on Delta, which had the best baggage-handling record among its peers (that is, the half-dozen largest US airlines) for 2011. Delta had 2.66 reports of mishandled baggage per 1,000 passengers flown last year—an impressive feat, given the airline's complex itineraries. (Budget airline AirTran had a slightly better record, but its simpler route map and lighter schedule give it an unfair advantage; American Eagle, by contrast, doubled Delta's lost-bag reports with 7.32 per 1,000 passengers.) Delta also raised the bar by adding a baggage-tracking tool to its free app for iPhone and Android (as well as to its website, delta.com, for those without smartphones). The app is the first from any airline to allow passengers to enter the number on a bag tag receipt—iPhone users can scan the barcode by snapping a photo of the tag—and watch a bag's journey from departure to arrival, all the way down to its exact claim carousel. If a bag is delayed, the owner can even check the bag's status using a reference number. It's no replacement for a waylaid vacation wardrobe, but it's certainly better than just wondering.
Best (Splurge) Airline for a Mid-Flight Scrub: Emirates
The advent of the superjumbo jet changed the game for aircraft-interior designers, and no one pushed the new boundaries—both in literal and figurative terms—quite like Emirates airlines. Not content to add cushier beds and more elaborate entertainment systems, the Dubai-based carrier was the first in the world to use that additional room on its A380s to install full-height shower stalls for its first-class passengers to freshen up mid-flight. On its Dubai-London route, for instance, Emirates has two snazzy walnut-and-marble "shower spas" to serve its 14 first-class passengers (one person at a time, please). Flight attendants explain the ins and outs in detail before sending folks inside for a scrub—including where to find the oxygen mask, should a change in cabin pressure occur. You'll be happy for the tutorial: When the stall's door is closed, the water turns on automatically—and so does a five-minute timer, complete with a yellow warning light to signal when it's time to rinse off any suds. Even if your financial forecast doesn't call for a "chance of showers," flying coach on Emirates has its own perks: Each seat reclines up to 120 degrees, comes with a power outlet, and has a 10-inch seatback TV screen with 1,200 channels of entertainment.
Best Airline for Safety Demonstration Videos [Currently in Use]: Virgin America
A nun, a matador, and a bull walk onto on airplane—no, this is not the setup for a joke; it's a list of the characters starring in Virgin America's lighthearted, animated safety-demonstration video. Don't get us wrong—we know that air-travel safety is no laughing matter—but there's a lot to be said for a video that's engaging enough to actually get people to pay attention. (Other airlines have experimented with comic versions of safety videos over the years, but only Virgin America has made it a standard feature.) The video's narrator deadpans all the essential information, inserting an offhand joke here and there ("For the point-zero-zero-zero-one percent of you who have never operated a seat belt before..."), while the animated illustrations showing how, for example, to find and open the compartments where the life vests are stored (in two different spots, depending on your seat) actually do a better job than most. It's the kind of stuff that could save precious seconds in the event of an emergency landing like 2009's Hudson River "miracle"—particularly if everyone on the flight has actually watched the demo. With their eyes open.
Most Punctual Airline: All Nippon Airways
Forget the stereotype about German punctuality—Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA) has set the standard for getting planes to their destinations on schedule. According to a report from FlightStats, the airline landed nine out of 10 flights on time in 2011—the best performance of any international carrier last year—just edging out Japan Airlines International (JAL), the winner for the two previous years. (The industry average was a full 10 percent below ANA's performance, with only about eight out of ten flights hitting their scheduled marks.) ANA operates about 1,000 flights a day, primarily out of its hubs in Tokyo and Osaka, and while the bulk of its routes run within Japan, the airline has added new service to Cairo, Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Frankfurt all in the last year.
The ultimate proof that an airline's in-flight food soars above the competition? When people choose to eat it outside the confines of the airplane. That's what has happened with Bangkok-based Thai Airways, whose bakery items (curry puffs, fruit tarts, coffee rolls), ready-made sauces, and salad dressings do brisk sales on the ground in its Puff & Pie takeout shops in Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai. Airline passengers have picked it as a winner, too. Last year, the 18 million people who voted in Skytrax's "World Airline Awards" in the economy-class food faceoff overwhelmingly opted for Thai Airways' cuisine, with its focus on local flavors in dishes like massaman curry, stir-fried chicken, and green curry, all served with white rice. (The airline does offer alternatives for fliers with dietary restrictions or less-adventurous palates.)
Stateside, our in-flight food is often lacking—not just in style (or appeal), but also in substance. High-fat, low-nutrient snacks have become the order of the day. That's why Dr. Charles Stuart Platkin, a nutrition expert known as the "Diet Detective," set out last year to determine which major North American airlines serve food that's actually worth its weight in calories. His findings showed that Virgin America offers (for purchase) the most nutritionally balanced meals and snacks—like the 370-calorie egg-and-vegetable salad wrap that's packed with hunger-sating protein—of all the U.S.-based airlines he studied. Given that today's fliers are grateful for any food being available at all on planes, we're pleased to see two airlines willing to better their catering games.
Eco-Friendliest Airline: Nature Air
You're going to love the windows on Nature Air's planes—and not just because the super-sized panels are roughly four times as large as the ones on the last jet you flew. No, the best part is what you see out of them: the astonishing views of the Costa Rican rainforest, which serve as a constant, vivid-green reminder of just what this regional airline is trying to protect. Of course, flying is never going to be a no-impact form of travel—at least not as we know it now—but Nature Air is wholly committed to reducing its harmful effects. The decade-old airline, the world's first (self-proclaimed) carbon-neutral carrier, invests in carbon offsets for 100% of its emissions via reforestation projects on Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula, and is constantly working toward greater fuel efficiency through better route planning and weight reduction. Over the last three years, they've increased efficiency by seven percent, and their fleet has some of the most fuel-efficient engines flying today. Sounds like as good of a reason as any to plan a spring fling in Central America.
Tech-Savviest Airline: Scandinavian Airlines
Imagine checking in for your flight without needing a boarding pass or a barcode, in either print or electronic form. SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) allows just that. Its system at Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm airports, debuting last fall, uses near-field communication (NFC) chips (placed inside stickers affixed to passengers' smartphones) to recognize passengers and their itineraries. Want to check in at an airport kiosk? Simply tap your smartphone, and the kiosk pulls up all relevant information. What about printing luggage tags, passing through security, or boarding the gate ramp to your plane? At each point, just tap your phone, and your info will be zapped to the machines (even if your phone is turned off). As of now, only 50,000 gold-level members of SAS's frequent flier program EuroBonus can use the tap-and-go system when traveling around Scandinavia. This summer, though, manufacturers of Samsung's Android devices—and, possibly, Apple's iPhones—are expected to release new models with NFC chips as a standard perk; here's hoping it's only a matter of time before SAS offers tap-and-go services to all its tech-forward fans.
Most Experienced Airline: Qantas
In the movie Rain Man, Tom Cruise says, "All airlines have crashed at one time or another. That doesn't mean that they are not safe." Dustin Hoffman responds: "Qantas. Qantas never crashed." We're happy to report that the claim still holds up—almost. The Australian national airline holds an admirable safety record, having avoided any fatal crashes for more than 60 years. Granted, Qantas has had some lesser accidents in the last few decades, including a crash of a jumbo jet in Bangkok in 1999 that caused injuries (but not deaths), and an emergency landing of a plane in Manila in 2008 after an oxygen bottle exploded. Yet with its very long track record—it's one of the world's oldest continuously operating airlines, founded in 1920—and heavy flight schedule (4,900 flights each week), the "Flying Kangaroo" still deserves kudos for consistency.
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