Worn as a proud badge of honour by airlines around the world, the air transport rating organisation, Skytrax has made a name for itself as the commercial aviation industry’s defacto Star Rating system. Yet surprisingly little is know about this mysterious organisation and recent decisions by Skytrax auditors raise concerning questions about how its decisions are made.
Last June, the great and the good of the aviation industry attended a sideline event at the Paris Air Show – it was the annual World Airline Awards, self-dubbed by Skytrax as “the Oscars of the aviation industry.” It was the fourth year, Skytrax had held the event in Paris with the biggest accolade going to Qatar Airways.
The awards, Skytrax tells us, are a not for profit element of its larger business. They are meant to set a “global benchmark of airline excellence” – importantly, Skytrax claims its the worlds largest passenger voted survey.
Skytrax claims 19.87 million people submitted a vote between August 2016 to May 2017 via its dedicated website. But not all is what it might seem – in 2015, industry publication Skift, conducted research that suggested Skytrax had wildly inflated the number of survey participants.
Our own research, via similarweb, shows the Skytrax website as receiving so few visitors that the exact number can’t even be estimated.
Concerns aside, however, Skytrax awards do at least normally tally with other rating organisations such as APEX and Tripadvisor. It was probably no surprise that Qatar Airways came in at #1 – or that Singapore Airways, Emirates and Garuda Indonesia also made the Top Ten.
Can Skytrax ben trusted?
But some recent decisions have certainly raised eyebrows. Most notable among them is naming Lufthansa as a Five Star airline – one of only ten such airlines in the world. One of the key decisions to rank Lufthansa so highly was a new Business Class which hasn’t even been released yet. The question is – can Skytrax really be trusted?
Apparently established in 1989 by Edward Plaisted and based in London, Skytrax says they are “specialist Research and Quality Advisors to the air transport industry.” The organisation gives its address as 29 Harley Street – a prestigious address in Central London once home to the city’s best physicians.
A 2016 investigation by The Guardian newspaper, however, reveals that over 2,159 businesses were registered at 29 Harley Street. While there’s no indication of Skytrax, breaking the law, investigations revealed some companies using the site were involved in tax avoidance and international fraud.
(Update: Skytrax has since changed its address to 85 Portland Street – the home of a business which acts as a “virtual mailing address”).
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to audit Skytrax’s accounts to clear them of any wrongdoing – the organisation isn’t actually registered as a company in the UK.
How Skytrax responded
We reached out to Skytrax’s spokesperson, Peter Miller to clear up some of these concerns. However, a representative from Skytrax told us Miller was unavailable due to business commitments in Asia. Instead, we were directed to read the multiple Skytrax websites for further information.
Those websites tell us that Skytrax does its work without “fear of favour” and that its “staff are professionals with unrivalled experience and knowledge of the air transport industry.”
But so little is known about those “professionals” – Plaisted himself is a completely unknown quantity. His Linkedin profile is surprisingly sparse with no details about any professional accreditations or qualifications.
How does it make money?
So how does Skytrax make its money? A spokesperson for the organisation refused our multiple requests to shed light on this subject but its believed that these come from airlines and airports paying for “audits” by Skytrax researchers – in turn, the airline or airport receives both advice and an “official” Star Rating.
A spokesperson for Lufthansa told us the “sums we are talking about are low five-figure sums (Euros)”. They explained:
“In return, we have received precise feedback. A reasonable price for an entire analysis package: Whether it’s test flights, very detailed investigations, recommendations, benchmark analyses – Skytrax’s reports offer a valuable glimpse into the mirror.”
Which sounds entirely reasonable – but what criteria are Skytrax using to rate airlines. Both Skytrax and Lufthansa say the rating methodology is a transparent catalogue of criteria – although that catalogue isn’t available for you and I to read (which clearly calls into questions just how transparent a secret rating method can be).
The Skytrax rating methodology
However, Lufthansa did provide further details. Here’s what they had to say on the matter:
“There is a transparent catalogue of criteria. The testers examined over 800 points. They look at every detail – on board and on the ground. And in the end, the airline receives a transparent and very detailed evaluation.”
“In summary, the testers have acknowledged what we have changed since the last audit in 2013, such as building new lounges, improving the care of our frequent flyers or introducing Business Class restaurant service on long-haul routes. Our investments have paid off and above all the outstanding commitment of all Lufthansa employees worldwide.”
Even major airlines have, in the past, shown concern about the way Skytrax does its work. In 2014, Etihad Airways suddenly dropped out of Skytrax’s Star rating system – diplomatically telling the world’s media that the decision had been made after a “review of the criteria and measurement of the Skytrax Airline Rating System.”
Etihad eventually came back on side when it partnered with Skytrax and revealed it had been rated as a Five Star airline – a rating it still holds today, despite significant cutbacks.
Certainly, some airlines and airports favour the use of Skytrax over others. It’s opaque rating system certainly makes it hard to tell whether it is in fact fair.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.