If you want to fly in style without spending a fortune, pay attention: There's a new top economy class in town.
It's Tokyo-based Japan Airlines, according to research firm Skytrax, which released the latest results from its annual "World's Best Airlines" rankings on Tuesday. The Japanese carrier finished ahead of runners-up Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines, based on Skytrax's survey of more than 13.4 million airline customers across 356 different global airlines.
Or, if you're looking to get the most bang for your buck, take a look at Malaysia's AirAsia or Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which topped this year's low-cost airline rankings.
Southwest scored particularly highly on seat comfort, WiFi and complimentary snacks and beverages on flights longer than 250 miles. AirAsia earned praise for its in-flight WiFi and seat power outlets.
Japan Airlines' economy class is designed to mimic the type of luxury you'd ordinarily find in first class. Its seats offer travelers more width and legroom than many other carriers — up to four more inches of legroom than the industry standard, according to NerdWallet.
Travelers on long-haul flights to Tokyo from cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or London can expect an in-flight menu that includes options like Japanese soba noodles and smoked salmon.
The experience is "designed to ensure that customers on all classes are are able to experience premium services," Japan Airlines said in a statement on Friday.
That may sound nice, but U.S. travelers should be aware of Japan's restrictions for foreign travelers: show proof of vaccination, and quarantine for 10 days upon entering the country.
As for AirAsia, the Malaysian carrier only extends to a single U.S. destination — Honolulu — and most U.S. travelers are currently barred from entering Malaysia, due to Covid travel restrictions.
Southwest, meanwhile, seems to have pulled off a remarkable recovery. Last year, the carrier reported its first annual loss — $3.1 billion — since 1972. But federal aid and a steady uptick in domestic travelers returning to the skies led to $4 billion in sales during this year's second quarter alone, Southwest reported in July.
Still, the airline has left plenty of bookings on the table, as weather and staffing shortages led to hundreds of canceled and delayed Southwest flights over the summer. "While the rapid ramp up in June travel demand provided stability to our financial position, it has impacted our operations following a prolonged period of depressed demand due to the pandemic," Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in the company's July earnings release.
Kelly plans to step down in 2022. His successor, Bob Jordan, told CNBC last week that Southwest is in the process of ramping up hiring to meet increased demand, with plans to add 8,000 employees over the next year.
"We're not going to repeat last summer," Jordan said.