It's a funny thing with airlines. There are some you expect to be great, and they are – like Singapore, or Asiana. Then there are some you expect to be great, and they're not – like BA, or Malaysia.
Others, however, you don't expect much from at all, and that's exactly what you get – like Aerolineas, or Ryanair.
Then there are others still: those you expect to be pretty average, but which wind up being some of the best you've flown with. Here's seven of them.
Walk on the plane and check out the seats and you start to worry. They're tiny little things. Seven hours, you think. In those? But the seats turn out to be no worse than any full-cost carrier's – same with the service, too. And you might have to pay extra for the food, but it's probably some of the best in the sky. If only the airline didn't dump you at Kuala Lumpur's hugely crap LCCT, there'd be nothing to complain about.
Virgin Australia (international)
Maybe it's because I wasn't sure what to expect from the "new" Virgin Australia. Is it budget, or full service? Will I be paying for food on board? Will there be any entertainment? It's a good sign when you walk onto a brand spanking new Boeing 777, and it just gets better from there, with great service, plenty of entertainment, and genuinely good food. And the price is still right.
There's a great story someone from Ethiopian Air told me about customers constantly ringing up to check whether any food would be served on board. Old stereotypes about this country are hard to shake. But while EA's domestic service is wildly unreliable at best – and just doesn't turn up at worst – its international flights are surprisingly good. The only complaint I had a few years back was the sign at the airport advertising the impending addition of Boeing Dreamliners to its fleet. "Coming," it said, "in 2008."
Again, this is probably more a case of perceptions than anything, but when you find out you're flying with some unknown Indian carrier, you don't exactly start getting your hopes up. But Jet does a surprisingly good job – flights are on time, the planes are new and clean, and the service is good. Beats flying in the States...
OK, this is "comparatively". Because as most travellers know, carriers in the US suck. And if the full-service, spend-all-your-money carriers suck, you'd expect the dinky budget airlines to be even worse (and they sometimes are – hi Alaskan Air). So that's why Southwest is such a pleasant surprise. It mightn't be the best airline in the world, but it's cheap, and compared to its local competitors, it's leading the way.
The Middle Eastern carrier doesn't have a grand reputation to match the likes of Emirates or Etihad, but it still does the job. I flew with them a couple of years ago with no idea what to expect, and found a nice clean aircraft with comfy seats, good service and plenty to keep me occupied for eight hours or so. Can't ask for much more.
Hey hey, it's Qantas! You know why Qantas is on the list? Because people whinge about it with such passionate ferocity that every time I go on there I prepare myself for the worst. I'm just about expecting goats to be walking up and down the aisles like some third-world bus service. But Qantas, of course, is pretty good. It's certainly not worth all of the complaining.
Which airlines have you found surprisingly good?
Follow Ben Groundwater on Twitter @bengroundwater