Virgin America and Southwest Top Zagat Survey

Air Travelers have praise for Virgin America and Southwest but are generally dissatisfied with airlines, objecting to baggage fees, high fares and indirect routes, according to a new survey by Zagat.

The 8,000 frequent flyers participating in the annual poll named Virgin America the top carrier overall for its coach and premium classes on both domestic and international routes.

Southwest was first in categories including Best Check-in Experience, as well as Best Luggage Policy, Best Consumer On-Time Estimates, Top Website and Best Value among domestic airlines.

For the third year in a row, Continental gets props for its domestic premium class. JetBlue takes top honors among large economy class carriers.

Perhaps a sign of economic recovery, respondents report taking more flights in 2010 than in the past few years, with an average of 17.4 flights, up from 16.6 in 2009 and 16.3 in 2008.

But that doesn't mean the frequent flyers are happy campers. Zagat, which has reviewed the airline industry since 1990, notes that in recent years "most major airlines' ratings have dropped precipitously."

Each airline is rated on a 30-point scale, and even at the top Virgin America is only rated 21 for its economy service and 24 for premium class.

When asked how they react to fees for checked luggage, 45% of respondents say they try to avoid flying such airlines; 42% say they have frequent flyer status on an airline that waves luggage fees; 33% say they travel only with a carry-on and 18% grudgingly opt to pay the fees.

"While fliers are slowly but surely returning to the skies, they remain focused on good values and reliable service," said Tim Zagat, CEO of Zagat Survey. "Airlines like Virgin America, Southwest, JetBlue and Continental score well with surveyors for precisely this reason."

International carriers continue to outperform the U.S. airlines. Singapore Airlines, the perennial winner, earned an impressive 28 rating for international premium class airlines and 24 for international economy service.

When choosing flights, respondents say their main consideration is direct routes (65%) followed by ticket price (55%).

The survey also looks at 30 major U.S. airports. Respondents rate Portland International as their favorite airport based on overall quality. Consistently coming in last place since 2007, is New York's LaGuardia Airport.

In other findings, Zagat says in-flight entertainment has become increasingly important to air travelers. For the third year in a row, JetBlue (domestic) and Virgin Atlantic (international) win for "Best In-Flight Entertainment.

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