The airlines that came out best (and worst) from the pandemic

·10-min read
BA and Virgin at Heathrow - Leon Neal/Getty Images Europe
BA and Virgin at Heathrow - Leon Neal/Getty Images Europe

The last 15 months have been an unmitigated disaster for many industries. But if you have sympathy to spare, consider airlines, whose businesses took a particularly violent hit as a result of the pandemic.

Not all have had government bailouts and many didn’t survive. Planes cost a fortune to ground and stow away, as do staff, plenty of whom ended up being cut loose. Add to that a year and a half of furious passengers seeking refunds in their tens of thousands and I can quite appreciate, given none of them were equipped to handle such an unprecedented situation, what a tap dance it’s been.

Some carriers, however, weathered the storm better than others. This year, in the Best Airlines in the World rankings, two British airlines made the top ten; Virgin Atlantic beating British Airways at seventh and tenth place respectively. A YouGov survey on British travellers conducted during the second quarter of 2021, however, had BA as the most popular carrier, followed by easyJet and Virgin.

We spoke to our staff and frequent flyer experts to see what insights they had with airlines during the pandemic; the good, the bad and the ugly. Here’s what they had to say (spoiler alert, there’s a lot of opinion on BA) – and do let us know about your experiences, either by voting in our Twitter poll or leaving a comment at the bottom of this article.

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Ryanair

"I've been operating a personal Ryanair ban for a few years. The delays, cancellations, non-existent customer service and pre-travel stress it had heaped upon me time and time again, I vowed never to fly with them again. That was before Covid-related travel bans left me little other options for my summer holidays, however, and this year my family and I have taken not one, not two, but three return trips with the airline. I believe the pandemic has been the making of Ryanair. Simple rebooking processes, cheery online staff (once you’ve sat out the lengthy queues), frequent pre-flight Covid protocol communications, friendly and proactive ground staff and excellent on board service. You never know. In a world where we once again have options, I may even choose to fly Ryanair over other carriers."
Claire Irvin

Claire Irvin on holiday
Claire Irvin on holiday

British Airways

"I am the type of person who arrives at the airport three hours before a flight, who has their documents neatly filed in a travel wallet – even pre-pandemic. And so, when check-in opened 24 hours before my BA trip to Ibiza, I was happy to see that my vaccine certificate and Spanish PLF had been 'approved' by the airline. I'd uploaded them to my booking, as prompted, and received green ticks all-round. Phew. Now, all l needed was to check in via the app – one final formality. But my satisfaction was short lived: "The travel document details you have entered are not valid for this flight", warned the red error message, which flashed up relentlessly when I tried to seal the deal. "You will be unable to fly without the correct travel documents." What? But I'd triple-checked them all, and a further check revealed nothing amiss. As no helpline was offered, I messaged a top-level work contact at BA (a last resort, and highly privileged I know). She assured me that it was 'just a passport check so should be fine' – and the following day, I sailed through check-in (in person) without a hitch. But why the scary message, which was categorically wrong? Why not just say they needed a quick passport check? I'm still none the wiser, but it was a terrifying start to the trip."
Hazel Plush

Hazel Plush
Hazel Plush

"After an unpleasant experience with easyJet last year (they were still cramming passengers in, every seat full, strangers pressed thigh to sunburned thigh), what a contrast this summer’s flight with British Airways was, from City Airport to Ibiza. No queues, no duty-free trolley, no scratch cards, nobody breaking into song. Each bubble had its own row of seats. I read my book, uninterrupted for two blissful hours, except when the genteel flight attendants served lunch. I’ve never flown first class, but surely it can’t get much better than an entire row to oneself and a ploughman’s sandwich on the house."
Laura Fowler

"We are, at this very moment, sitting in Terminal 5 waiting to check in to fly to Vancouver with BA. We're at the end of the line. We've used the Verifly app which BA expressly exhorted me to use to upload our vaccine certificates, PCR test certificates, and the Canadian ArriveCan quarantine exemption authorisation. Thanks to my absurd surname (no one in the digital ether ever considered names of more than one word) every one of those required manual review. Even once that was all sorted out it still transpired we had to do the electronic Travel Authorisation, never mentioned by BA before or by the ArriveCAN quarantine exemption system. That mysteriously sorted itself out overnight despite me never entering the eTA number because there wasn't anywhere to do so. Finally, we were able to commence online check-in, only for that to grind to a halt like a tank engine in a lonely siding, and then were told we had to go to the airport to have all our documents checked. So what was all the digital stuff for? Oh, I know. It must have been for a laugh. One more hurdle and we're going back to the car and driving home. We're inveterate travellers, but it really isn't worth this much grief. Is this a special BA-inflicted torture or is it everybody? I have no idea and right now I don't care. All this, and for what exactly?"
Guy de la Bédoyère

Guy de la Bédoyère
Guy de la Bédoyère

"Has British Airways staff been given individual copies of The Great Big Book Of Dad Jokes?' I can think of no other explanation as to why every crew member and check-in employee was in such a good mood on my flight to St. Lucia last week. From the officer at check-in who grinned 'don't try and open the window my friend' as he gave me my window seat, to the flight attendant who called me the 'perfect passenger' for, basically, not making a massive mess of my meal tray, to the coy 'wine o'clock Mr Crossan?' offer of more dry white – something is afoot. Perhaps it's just sheer relief at having kept their jobs during the worst of the Plague Times. Perhaps it's because the staff have all been watching Milton Jones during lockdown. But the endearingly corny gags and genuine smiles beneath the masks are alluring and so, so welcome. Long may it continue."
Rob Crossan

Virgin Atlantic

"Virgin Atlantic has been my favourite airline, and that of my family, for as long as I can remember, thanks in large part to their friendly, lively, helpful customer service. Having flown with them last month, for the first time since before the pandemic, to the British Virgin Islands, nothing has changed on that front. If anything, the cabin crew seemed jauntier than ever; no doubt happy to have jobs again.

‘We’ve missed you,’ read the screens as we boarded, and the air stewardess responsible for my section (I was upgraded to business class at the gate) made a point of visiting every seat before take-off to ask passengers how their year had been. There was a real spirit of commiseration and shared optimism. No upgrade on the way back, but the service was no less cheery, and I didn’t spot any dramas unfold while checking in, boarding, or during the flight."
Annabel Fenwick Elliott

Jet2 check in at Stansted - Emma Featherstone
Jet2 check in at Stansted - Emma Featherstone

Jet2

"I flew to Ibiza with Jet 2 in July. It was the company's first day back in business. I've been overseas a few other times since the non-essential travel ban was lifted on May 17, but this was the smoothest experience. It was the understanding and friendliness of the staff at Stansted that impressed me the most – they patiently checked forms and answered questions in the (quick moving) queue for check-in. It felt like they were really pleased to see, and assist, passengers again."
Emma Featherstone

"I've been won over by Jet2 this summer and will definitely choose them over easyJet in future – both serve a route I fly often, Split-Manchester. Every time, once everyone has boarded, the captain announces that cabin staff will be wearing masks throughout the journey, and asks passengers to show solidarity with them and do the same. It works without agro. Last summer mask-wearing on easyJet was a fiasco. I'm a minimalist-packer, but easyJet has now reduced hand luggage to the size of a handbag (45 x 36 x 20cm), which is absurd, while Jet2 still let you carry aboard a small case (56 x 45 x 25cm) for free."
Jane Foster

SAS (Scandinavian Airlines)

"I’ve flown several times this summer and last – including back from Copenhagen a fortnight ago, on an SAS service that felt like Scandinavian calm in a nutshell: orderly queues, clear instructions, a row-by-row disembarkation process that every passenger respected instead of lurching upwards at the first bump of wheels on runway, dragging their bags from the overhead locker across the heads of grandparents and children, and barrelling for the exit.

Perhaps we have all learned to be less rushed in the strange stasis of the last 18 months. Perhaps not. In truth, flying has felt little different in the last year and a half. Yes, there are extra forms to fill in; extra questions to answer at each end of the journey. But it all boils down to the same thing – the guy in front (it’s always a guy) reclining two seconds after take-off; dry sandwiches masquerading as lunch; someone else’s crumbs on a supposedly sanitised tray table; and the random bout of turbulence as you take a sip of coffee."
Chris Leadbeater

SAS Airlines - Mondadori Portfolio
SAS Airlines - Mondadori Portfolio

Swiss

"I’ll admit I was nervous about flying to Switzerland during Covid – not because of getting the virus, but because I might test positive during some random airport check and end up quarantining in a Swiss mausoleum full of cuckoo clocks.

I’d flown domestically with Greek airline Aegean since the start of the pandemic and controls were strict, with staff scrutinising Covid certificates for date and type of jab and turning away passengers who didn’t have PLF forms. In Switzerland Land of Efficiency surely it would be worse? Astoundingly, Swissair staff ignored my crumpled vaccination certificate, didn’t request a PLF form, and instead of being greeted by a dirndl-wearing Swiss version of the Spanish inquisition in Geneva, they didn’t even control my passport."
Heidi Fuller-Love

Lufthansa

"I visited England from Munich several times mid-pandemic with Lufthansa and changed my plans endlessly. Every agent I spoke to was friendly, accommodating and flexible; enabling me in one instance to delay my return flight no less than three times with no charge. Yesterday I booked another flight from Munich to London for next week and was ecstatic to find a business class ticket that was cheaper than an economy seat on the same flight. Fare error? Perhaps, but I’m not complaining."
Julius Scholtes

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