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Best airline 2020: Ensure a smooth flight, whether you’re looking for value or comfort

Kate Hilpern Matt Breen
6 Jan 2020
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Whether you're jetting off for a holiday or business trip, we've picked out the very best airlines to get you from A to B

If you’ve ever had a bad flight, you’ll know that not all airlines are alike. Punctuality, comfort, service and flight frequency are just some of the potential variables. And nobody wants to start their holiday in a bad mood – or turn up late and exhausted to a business event.

Choosing the right carrier means you’re much more likely to have a good experience. It doesn’t have to be expensive: some low-cost airlines provide a wonderfully smooth, stress-free service. But if you want to spend a bit more it’s certainly possible to get a more luxurious experience. Whatever you’re looking for, here’s our guide to finding the perfect flight.

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How to pick the best airline for you

For many of us, picking an airline starts with the price. Low-cost airlines are great if you’re on a budget, but remember that the ticket price usually only covers the seat and one or two items of hand luggage; checked baggage, food and other services generally cost extra.

Naturally, you also need to pick an airline that flies to your desired destination. If an airline is a member of the Star Alliance, Oneworld or SkyTeam groups, it means it works with other airlines to provide a greater number of routes worldwide.

Entertainment is another consideration. Most airlines offer some kind of in-flight video service on longer routes, but there’s a world of difference between the cheapest systems and the best, and the range of films and TV shows on offer varies considerably. If you’re travelling with kids it’s a good idea to find out ahead of time whether you’ll need to load up your own phone or tablet with suitable distractions. Many airlines these days even provide in-flight Wi-Fi; there’s no guarantee your connection will be good enough to watch Netflix, but it could be a godsend if you have to get some work done on your flight.

Then there’s comfort to think about. How wide are the seats, and how much leg room do you get? And what extras do you get if you upgrade to Premium Economy, or beyond? On a related note, it’s also a good idea to look into the food and drink options; some airlines pride themselves on their cuisine, while others are still stuck in the days when “airline food” was a synonym for tough and tasteless.

Finally, there’s the nebulous question of service. No two flights are exactly the same, but you can check each airline’s reputation and customer reviews to find out whether the staff are generally considered friendly, responsive and efficient.

Those are the key points, but if you want to get into the nitty gritty there are plenty of other factors you can compare, such as lounge access, baggage allowance and loyalty schemes. It’s safe to say that there are a lot of different ways to get from A to B.

How do I check an airline’s reputation?

Recommendations from friends and family are all well and good, but you’ve no way of knowing how typical their experiences are. Our list of the best airlines below are based on large numbers of customer reviews, so they give you an idea of which airlines consistently stand out.

There are also numerous awards issued annually by companies ranging from Forbes to AirHelp and from Which? to TripAdvisor, again reflecting the experiences of many thousands of real customers. Check you’re reading the newest results, though – things can change, and last year’s winners might be this year’s losers.

What about safety?

Airlines aren’t allowed to fly into or out of the UK unless they meet tremendously stringent safety standards. Statistically speaking, therefore, safety is simply a non-issue. If you’re an anxious flyer, though, you might like to look into sites like airlineratings.com, where you can find out which airlines have the very best safety records – including many impeccable carriers that have never experienced a single incident.

The best airlines to fly with in 2020

Qatar Airways: The best airline in the world

The flag carrier of Qatar is regularly voted the best airline in the world, and Hamad Airport – its headquarters in the country’s capital Doha – is regularly voted the best airport in the Middle East. Qatar Airways also has an exceptional record when it comes to punctuality, and since it serves every continent, there are plenty of ways to experience it for yourself.

The airline has a varied fleet of planes, including two-cabin configurations – offering Business and Economy Class – and three-cabin aircraft with an additional First Class section. Business Class is a high-tech oasis, with ultra-wide seats that recline down into flat beds, and up to 3,000 in-flight entertainment options. And for First Class, extravagance is the word; legroom is among the best in the skies, there’s posh bed linen with pyjamas provided by The White Company, and dining facilities are so luxurious that it’s possible to have a romantic dinner for two at 30,000ft.

Even in Economy, your comfort is assured, with moulded headrests and adjustable personal entertainment screens showing a huge range of films and TV programmes. The multicultural crew is always responsive and friendly, and the food is consistently good too.

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Key specs – Founded: 1993; Main airport: Hamad International, Doha; Flies to: 150 destinations across six continents

Lufthansa: Best European airline

Lufthansa is Europe’s largest airline – and the only one to receive a five-Star Skytrax rating for service and first-rate comfort. Other accolades include awards for best airline in western Europe and best First Class lounge dining (Lufthansa is the world’s largest purchaser of caviar).

The airline currently serves 209 destinations in 74 countries from of its twin hubs in Frankfurt and Munich. Economy Class passengers can look forward to all new seats from 2019 in Lufthansa’s A320 family aircraft, while in Business Class you can choose a seat with more desk space, or one with a higher degree of privacy.

There’s also in-flight internet for all passengers on international flights, automatic online check-in for European destinations, and a nifty companion app that lets you plan out your onboard entertainment up to six weeks in advance. Efficient, friendly and professional, this airline is hard to fault.

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Key specs – Founded: 1926; Main airports: Frankfurt and Munich; Flies to: 209 destinations in 74 countries

Japan Airlines: Most hospitable airline

Japan’s largest airline embraces the principles of Omotenashi, a particular brand of Japanese hospitality. That doesn’t just apply to First Class and Executive Class (their equivalent of Business Class), but also to Premium Economy Class, Class J (Economy Class with larger seats) and regular Economy Class. Soon after take-off, the lights are dimmed to help you sleep, and although nine seats per row is the industry norm for a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, JAL uses eight-seat rows to give Economy Class passengers a more comfortable flight. Food is excellent, with menus prepared by Michelin-star chefs with fresh ingredients. And for long-haul flights, the toilets in JAL’s 787s feature a bidet-like warm water cleansing system.

It’s a great experience on the ground too. Japan Airlines allows Premium Economy passengers to use the Business Class lounge – something no other airline offers – as well as providing dedicated check-in counters and priority luggage handling. Even better, all passengers, of all classes, get lounge access ahead of the early morning flight from Tokyo to Heathrow.

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Key specs – Founded: 1951; Main airports: Haneda and Narita (Tokyo); Flies to: 90 destinations in 54 countries

Jet2.com: Best low-cost airline

Like many low-cost air carriers, Yorkshire-based Jet2.com doesn’t include everything with the ticket: checked luggage, onboard snacks and extra leg room all cost extra. But the UK’s fourth-largest airline is still a great choice for a cheap getaway. It’s scooped many awards, including Britain’s Best Airline at the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards 2018 and Which? magazine’s Travel Brand of the Year award. Customer reviews rave about its service, cleanliness, value for money, family-friendly facilities and efficient check-in and boarding.

With a great range of destinations, including transatlantic jaunts to New York, Jet2 proves that cheap doesn’t have to mean nasty. No wonder it’s behind only Ryanair when it comes to flying with the fewest empty seats.

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Key specs – Founded: 2002; Main airport: Leeds Bradford; Flies to: 60 destinations in Europe and USA

Etihad Airways: Most luxurious airline

With live news and sports channels streamed directly to your seat, and even Norland nannies on board to assist families on long-haul flights, flying with Etihad is a special experience. Operating non-stop services to around 40 destinations all around the globe, Etihad is consistently named among the best airlines in the world.

Cabin options are particularly noteworthy. The three-room Residence suite has been called the most luxurious airline accommodation money can buy, short of your own private jet. There’s also First Class Apartment, First Class Suite and Business Studio options, while for us mere mortals, the Economy Smart Seats feature unique “wings” at the sides on which you can rest your head. Believe us, when you want to drop off on a long flight this makes a huge difference. The airline has also recently introduced an innovative Neighbour-Free Seat option in Economy Class, which lets you pay for up to three empty seats next to you.

To top it all, Etihad is also one of the most environmentally sound carriers, winning a top rating by London’s Heathrow Airport last year for emissions and night-time noise.

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Key specs – Founded: 2003; Main airport: Abu Dhabi; Flies to: 40 destinations in the Middle East, Asia, Oceania, Europe, Africa, North America and South America

Singapore Airlines: Best Economy Class experience

Singapore Airlines offers the best Economy Class experience in the sky. The cabin crew are efficient and friendly, the food is excellent, and although the seats are slightly narrower than they used to be, there’s generous legroom and great features such as USB charging sockets.

First Class and Business Class accommodation is impressive too. On the A380, First Class suites have sliding doors and a fully flat double-bed option, with a separate leather recliner so you don’t even need to convert your seat. There’s also a 32in HD TV, a full-size wardrobe, a leather-lined amenity kit and feature wall with mood lighting.

Business Class seats, meanwhile, are among the widest in the industry, and fold out into a 198cm flat bed; it’s even possible to arrange two adjacent seats into a double bed. Premium Economy passengers get a 19.5 inch-wide leather seat with a calf-rest, footbar, in-seat power supply, two USB ports, a cocktail table and plenty of storage space for personal items.

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Key specs – Founded: 1972; Main airport: Changi (Singapore); Flies to: 60 destinations in 35 countries

Air New Zealand: The best Premium Economy experience

Flying numerous times a day from various capital cities, this airline ticks a lot of boxes. Its flight crew are rated among the best in the industry-friendly and relaxed but always attentive. And ANZ’s Premium Economy service really stands out; it feels a lot like Business Class, with wide, comfortable seats and tilting screens with noise-cancelling headphones and a USB port. You even get to use the same toilets as Business Class passengers – and the baggage entitlement is a treat, running to two bags of up to 23kg each, plus an extra two bags and one small item of hand luggage.

If you’re saving the pennies, ANZ’s Economy Class is well worth a look too. The industry-leading “sky couch” option allows a couple to buy a bank of three seats and turn it into a bed, and airline boasts one of the industry’s best entertainment systems –essentially Netflix in the sky. You can also use your touchscreen to browse the in-flight menu, and order food and drinks direct to your seat.

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Key specs – Founded: 1940; Main airports: Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington; Flies to: Over 20 domestic destinations, plus airports in Australia, the Pacific Islands, Asia, North America, South America and the UK

Cathay Pacific: Best for business class

Cathay Pacific is one of the world’s best-known and most respected carriers from the Pacific, as well as being the world’s fifth-biggest airline. A founding member of the Oneworld alliance, it operates its seven lounges at Hong Kong International Airport – some recently refurbished to a very high quality. There’s an impressively high number of flights, and the company has a great record for being on time.

And while that goes for economy right up to the all-singing, all-dancing first class, we think it’s business class that’s the jewel in the crown, especially on its newer planes. We can’t fault the service quality (from the booking onwards), and onboard the drinks service is particularly quick and the food is fabulous (with plenty of choice for both). The in-flight entertainment system is notable, with a large high-quality touchscreen, great noise-cancelling headphones and a vast choice when it comes to current and older movies, TV, music and games. Grab a window seat if you can – it’s angled to actually face the window, but either way the chair (including when reclined to bed mode) is extremely comfortable, with plenty of room to move around. The toilets (both sides) are roomy, if you need to change in them.

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Key specs – Founded in: 1946; Main airports: Hong Kong; Flies to: over 190 destinations across Asia, Oceania, Europe, Africa and North Africa

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