If you've seen the current United Airlines ad campaign - the one where the hapless underling steps deliberately into his boss's golf swing rather than face the living hell of a long business trip to the States - you might wonder what has happened to the excitement of air travel.
After the triple whammy of 9/11, SARS and the Iraq war, with all the subsequent unease and security implications, flying has never looked less fun. Travelling with Ryanair and easyJet is more like catching a bus (woe betide you if you miss it), and the ultimate in airborne glamour - Concorde - has just been pensioned off.
But does business travel really have to be like that? Here at MT we don't think so, and in an effort to put some of the romance and prestige back into business flying, we have produced the ultimate list of the nation's top five airlines - as chosen by those who fly with them. Combining the results of five of the most respected awards and surveys in the business, our list is the last word in airborne assessment and proves that plenty of regular business travellers prefer a comfy seat, loads of legroom and attentive service to rock-bottom prices and a nine-hour stopover in Samarkand.
BA and Singapore Airlines share the winner's laurels with a score of 82 each. BA's performance is all the more remarkable, given the problems it has had to wrestle with this year, from lightning strikes at Heathrow to the sparsity of traffic on the transatlantic air bridge. BA was voted best business airline by readers of Conde Nast Traveller, best business class in the 2003 Business Traveller magazine reader poll and was favourite among the 2,500 execs who took part in the Barclaycard Business Travel Survey this year. Its huge route network and frequent flights make BA an easy choice wherever you want to go, and its famously cosseting business class seats were declared the best around by SkyTrax Airline Research's panel of regular travellers.
Singapore Airlines got SkyTrax's top marks for long-haul services, and was an impressively consistent performer across the board. Carrying more than 15 million passengers a year, it is the second-largest airline in the survey after BA, and proves that big outfits can deliver a personal service of the highest quality.
At least as significant as who is in our list is who isn't. Despite their commercial success and great popularity in the leisure market, no low-cost operators make the top five. Ryanair's profit margin of over 20% and impressive growth may be the envy of traditional operators, but our results suggest that - in the medium to long-haul business travel market, at least - passengers will pay more for a better-quality experience. It must be said, though, that Ryanair is one of the most punctual operators and doesn't lose many bags.
In third place is Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson's brainchild, whose demand for cash in the early days forced him to part with his beloved record label for $880 million in 1992.
Two more of our top five hail from the orient - Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific in fourth and UAE's Emirates in fifth, suggesting that European airlines have something to learn in satis- fying the customer. Cathay's hub was hit by SARS this year but it is fighting back with a new business-class service that offers flat six-foot-plus seats and video entertainment on demand.
Emirates is introducing a new Airbus A340-500 and promises to lull passengers to sleep with a twinkling night-sky effect in the ceiling, and lighting throughout that matches the time of day at your destination to minimise jet lag.
Short-haul flying may increasingly be the preserve of no-frills operators, but there's a long way to go before a long-haul ticket becomes a price-only commodity.
TOP FIVE BUSINESS AIRLINES - SCORE OUT OF 100
Revenues £7.68bn Passengers 38.02m
1st= BRITISH AIRWAYS SCORE 82
Revenues £6.18bn Passengers 15.33m
1st= SINGAPORE AIRLINES SCORE 82
Revenues £14bn Passengers 4.09m ('02)
3rd VIRGIN ATLANTIC SCORE 78
Revenues £2.78bn ('02) Passengers 12.32m ('02)
4th CATHAY PACIFIC SCORE 62
Revenues £1.49bn Passengers 8.5m
5th EMIRATES SCORE 55
- Souces: Conde Nast Traveller Readers' Awards, SkyTrax Airline
Research, Business Traveller Readers' Poll, Barclaycard Business Travel
Survey, Consumers Association Airline Report 2003
EUROPE'S MOST PUNCTUAL PLANES DEPARTURES WITHIN 15 MINS OF SCHEDULED
British Airways 80.9%
Air France 79.6%
SOURCES: ASSOCIATION OF EUROPEAN AIRLINES/RYANAIR/EASYJET.
THE WORLD'S 10 LARGEST AIRPORTS - ANNUAL PASSENGER THROUGHPUT
Atlanta US 75.86m
Chicago US 67.45m
Los Angeles US 61.61m
London-Heathrow UK 60.74m
Dallas/Fort Worth US 55.15m
Frankfurt Germany 48.56m
Paris-Charles de Gaulle France 47.98m
Amsterdam Netherlands 39.53m
Denver US 36.10m
Phoenix US 35.49m
SOURCE: AIRPORT COUNCIL INTERNATIONAL 2001.
UK OVERALL AIR TRAVEL GROWTH
MILLIONS OF PASSENGERS, FORECAST AS LOW AND HIGH
International Domestic Total
LOW HIGH LOW HIGH LOW HIGH
2005 152.8 164.4 40.7 43.8 220.5 237.4
2010 179.5 207.5 46.7 54.0 256.8 296.8
2020 247.0 284.0 61.7 81.7 348.5 460.8
UK SCHEDULED LOW-COST AIR TRAVEL GROWTH MILLIONS OF PASSENGERS, FORECAST
AS LOW AND HIGH SCENARIOS
Business Leisure Total
LOW HIGH LOW HIGH LOW HIGH
2005 4.5 4.9 13.5 14.6 18.0 19.4
2010 5.0 5.8 15.0 17.3 20.0 23.1
2020 6.1 8.1 18.4 24.3 24.5 32.4
SOURCE: AIR TRAFFIC FORECAST 2000.
THE WORLD'S FIVE BEST AIRPORTS
1. Singapore (Changi)
2. Hong Kong (Chek Lap Kok)
4. London (Heathrow)
5. Amsterdam (Schiphol)
SOURCE: BUSINESS TRAVELLER READERS' POLL 2003.
HOW THE TOP FIVE WAS COMPILED
We aggregated results from this year's Conde Nast Traveller readers' awards, Business Traveller readers' poll, Barclaycard Business Travel Survey, SkyTrax Airline Research and the Consumer's Association airline survey. Up to 30 points were allocated for each of the CNT, BT and SkyTrax surveys. A maximum of 10 points was allocated to the Barclaycard survey, making a possible score of 100. Additional weighting was given to airlines that achieved top ranking (plus 10 points) or second-top (plus five points) in the CA survey.