Hamad International Airport in Doha has been named the Best Airport in the World at the 2021 Skytrax World Airport Awards. That's a feather in the cap for the Qatari gateway, but if you follow these things it might come as a surprise. For every year since 2013, Skytrax followers have voted Singapore's Changi Airport the world's best. Until this year.
In yet another accolade for the gas-rich state, Qatar Airways took the Skytrax award for world's best airline in 2019 (the airline awards were cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, but are being held again in 2021). Snaring the double of world's best airline plus airport gives Qatar a winning hand. Who wouldn't want to fly the world's best airline, via the world's best airport?
The Skytrax awards matter. They're known as the Oscars of the aviation industry, and Skytrax is the world's arbiter of air travel excellence. Founded in 1989, the UK-based air transport rating organisation does for air travel what Tripadvisor does for hotels. The Skytrax website hosts flyers' reviews covering just about every aspect of the inflight experience, from catering to seats, staff performance and inflight entertainment.
Skytrax has been operating the World Airline and Airport awards since 1999 and although questions have been asked about its methodology - Etihad refused to participate after 2014 in protest at the way the awards are assessed - Skytrax goes to some lengths to ensure its awards are independent and impartial, and seen to be so.
In 2019 Skytrax received 21.65 million entries for the airline awards covering more than 300 carriers. Every online entry was screened, with duplicate entries disallowed based on the user's IP address. As well as English, the survey languages include French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Japanese.
But the number one ranking for Hamad Doha Airport doesn't necessarily gel with reviews on the Skytrax website. Among the 10 most recent reviews, in which readers award a mark out of 10, Hamad Doha Airport gets 64 out of a possible 100. Changi Airport, now in third place on Skytrax's 'world's best' list, scores 73. On the same website Changi's customer rating from 397 reviews is 7 out of 10. Based on 206 reviews of Hamad Doha, that airport's customer rating is just 6 out of 10.
Just like the world's best beer, workout routine or pizza joint, aviation industry awards depend on who you're asking. According to the latest airline survey in USA Today, the world's best airline is Delta. Followed by Jet Blue and Southwest. The first non-US airline to make the top 10 list is Japan's ANA, coming in at number four. That's followed by another three US carriers before Japan Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Emirates fill out the bottom end of the top 10.
Delta might be the best airline in the US, but a survey that puts any of the major US carriers above the likes of JAL, Singapore and Emirates is dubious. Speaking of the embellishments that won Delta the number one spot, USA Today's panel of experts who made the initial selection of airlines noted "even smaller planes have seat-back TVs to keep passengers entertained on their journey". Wow.
Do these awards reflect national sentiment? "With regard to the USA Today awards I am not sure what questions were asked of subscribers but as it's a US newspaper with US readers then the results would naturally skew towards US airlines," according to Geoffrey Thomas, Editor-in-Chief and Managing Director of Airlineratings.com. "I once worked for a US based airline publication and there was a clear directive that US airlines had to feature in the awards as 'that is our major subscriber base'. However I worked for another and it was the best wins."
Perth based Airlineratings.com is another player in the awards business. In 2021, Qatar Airways took the gold medal in the Airlineratings.com awards with Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines taking silver and bronze.
"With regard to our awards we have clear set criteria and in the case of our Airline Excellence Awards there are 11 criteria," says Mr Thomas. "But as many times it is neck and neck our six global editors and advisors chip in with their opinions to separate the top three or four is some cases. With this year's winner Qatar Airways it was the airline's commitment to keep flying throughout the worst of the pandemic that made them a standout."
In some cases, an airline determined to make the top of the podium can game the system by encouraging a flood of favourable reviews. In the Tripadvisor Traveller's Choice awards for 2021, Azul scored the number one spot as the world's best airline.
In case you're wondering, Azul is Brazil's largest international carrier in terms of network size. According to Skytrax, Azul rates three stars out of five, however it also scores 7/10 from 75 customer reviews, the same as Singapore Airlines. Click on reviews of Azul on the Tripadvisor website however and out of the first 10, eight reviewers give it just one star out of five.
How any airline with such damning reviews was ever named "world's best" is a mystery. You have to wonder what Azul did to engineer their award. Also, why Tripadvisor does not do more to weed out bogus award entries.