Is there such a thing as a boutique airline? Well, now there is.

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Just like their counterpart boutique hotels, these airlines may not be the biggest in the world, or even biggest in their markets, but they remain highly competitive by focusing on service and investing in an exceptional on-board product, even if they don’t fly everywhere that the majors do. Many of them are national carriers operating out of select markets.

While they may not have the coverage of a British Airways or be as integral to their region’s transport as an Etihad, they are often the first choice for travelers when the route is available.

If you want to save your travel dollars to spend at your luxury destination—or can’t stretch your wallet far enough to reach the front of the plane—but still want to be treated to the luxury when you fly, these are great choices. While many specialize in certain markets, they also serve many popular destinations. In fact, it is possible to choose among these boutique carriers to go virtually anywhere around the world. Many of these airlines are also members of the big three alliances, and have other partners besides. Because of this, they can make your choice of onward code-share connections. As an added bonus, their alliance membership helps you earn miles for that deluxe-Economy trip.

We’ve put on our thinking caps to develop a rating methodology which helps us determine the best cabin experiences around the world. We used the same stringent measures to evaluate these best of the best as we did with the largest carriers by region, and these scores can be compared with those others.

More Airline Cabin Ratings

Read more about the methodology here.

For this list we looked at Economy Class, not an enhanced offering like Premium Economy (that’s coming next week). Only boutique airlines which scored 54 or higher made it to our short list. This limited the shortlist to boutique airlines which rank above the median score of 53 among the larger World’s Best category carriers. While a few of these boutique carriers have aircraft with 10-across seating, and they were dinged for that, some had significantly larger pitch (space between seats) wider or more comfortable seat structures and/or other comfort “extras” (amenities, luxury blankets, etc.) which had to be considered. Just as we did with the larger carriers, we considered the aircraft type too. This, combined the other features we mentioned, could have resulted in a score of six on Room/Comfort.

In all, eleven airlines qualified to be on the shortlist of the Best of the Boutiques. While eight of the exclusive members of this shortlist are Asian carriers, there were three notable contenders in Europe: Finnair, SAS, and TAP Air Portugal.

The Best of the Boutiques is lead off by a three-way tie between Singapore Airlines, Asiana Airlines, and Malaysia Airlines, which each earned a rating of 58. We believe these high numbers accurately reflect the extra investments these airlines make to ensure the highest degree of passenger comfort, even at the back of the plane.

We know what you’re thinking: Two of these contenders have had flight incidents, and one had two tragic flights last year. We’d like to point out that, despite the popularity of articles on the “safest” airlines, we haven’t run any of those stories. Aircraft accidents are rare. Incidents like those Malaysia Airlines experienced last year rarer still. Any respected aviation authority who could reasonably predict an airline was unsafe, would pull that carrier’s operating license. Any writer claiming to know which airline will have accidents in future, should be betting on the stock market instead. We did not believe it was just to ignore a high-quality product only because an airline has suffered tragedy.

The Shortlist

  • Singapore Airlines (58), Asiana Airlines (58) and Malaysia Airlines (58)
  • Korean Air (57)
  • Finnair (56), TAP Air Portugal (56)
  • Hainan Airlines (55), Virgin Australia (55)
  • Cathay Pacific (54), Thai Airways (54), SAS (54)

The Star Alliance network again has the most top-tier boutiques (5) in their network. Combined with the Star Alliance’s top performance in the Major Airlines carrier category last week (with four winning major carriers in their respective regions), it’s clear that its members care about the back of the plane.

Ranking the World’s Long-Haul Economy Sections of Boutique Airlines
(Scroll right to see all details)

Service, Region, AirlineAllianceWeekly FlightsDaily DeparturesDestinationsMax Free BaggageWebsitePitchSeat WidthRoom/Comfort FactorMeal/Beverage ServiceIFEWi-FiIn-Seat PowerSeamless TechDesign AppealNet Score
Asiana AirlinesStar Alliance26024100 lbs898888111658
Malaysia AirlinesOneworld34063Var1085799011858
Singapore AirlinesStar Alliance62160100 lbs8776910111858
Korean AirSkyTeam420127100 lbs1097689011657
FinnairOneworld268107100 lbs977798011756
TAP Air PortugalStar Alliance3508850 lbs887788111756
Hainan AirlinesIndependent3892N/AVAR51 lbs969789011555
Virgin AustraliaIndependent3454N/AVAR50 lbs1076778011855
Cathay PacificOneworld44692Var967679011854
SAS Scandinavian AirlinesStar Alliance78512350 lbs965699111754
Thai AirwaysStar Alliance2847966 lbs966689111754
EVA AirStar Alliance12458100 lbs687788111653
Brussels AirlinesStar Alliance2407850 lbs995868011552
Garuda IndonesiaSkyTeam5347066 lbs668779111652
Aer LingusIndependent1388N/AVAR50 lbs955699111652
Austrian AirlinesStar Alliance370130100 lbs955699011752
SwissStar Alliance400104100 lbs1055688011852
AirberlinOneworld83215150 lbs1056688111551
Royal JordanianOneworld10960100 lbs865679011750
Virgin AtlanticIndependent400N/A35100 lbs1055479111750
Air IndiaStar Alliance38785Var866489011649
China AirlinesSkyTeam2389550 lbs565499111748
Air New ZealandStar Alliance5235150 lbs855488011747
Jet AirwaysIndependent3576N/A73Var767477011646
AlitaliaStar Alliance638123100 lbs955557001845
Photo Credit: The Economy section of Singapore Airlines. Singapore Airlines