"The lot of air passengers is a dismal one," declares Egon Ronay. "Herded like cattle, kept uninformed during frequent delays, racked in their tight seats, air travelers are reduced to cyphers and de-humanized. Fed unspeakable food and often ignored by flight staff, they are heavily overcharged in the bargain."
Ronay, the diminutive, dapper Hungarian who has become Britain's arbiter of taste in food and lodging, is off on another of his crusades. He has put into the new edition of his best-seller guide to British restaurants and hotels an unprecedented and uncompromising survey of transatlantic airlines.
Ronay and five of his professional inspectors rated the 14 airlines that fly from the British Isles to the East Coast of the United States on everything from comfort, food and service to the cleanliness of their lavatories and the smiles of their staffs. They found that most of them were were pretty bad, which didn't surprise Ronay, who had finally decided to do the survey after enduring years of increasingly unpleasant air travel.
In his survey report, Ronay describes airline food as "glutinous casseroles . . . surrounded by miniature airline-brown pools masquerading as sauces and coagulating into a mess in the tight corset of tiny, plastic dishes. sEven undrinkable coffee comes as a relief, after the invariable sickly sweet dessert.
"There is only one thing worse than the foods," he adds, "the scandalous state of the toilets . . . Our experience of filth and discarded bits and pieces does not bear description."
But he finds it easy to describe a host of other irritations, including the icy insincerity of the "fixed airline staff smile" and the crowding, chaos and culinary insults of most American and British international air terminals. "The nadir of our sufferings," he reports, "was reached at Kennedy Airport, where the food at the buffet of the Pan American terminal was generally execrable and where the British pub at the British Airways terminal was last summer run in such a slap-dash manner as to be a deterrent to visiting real pubs in Britain itself."
The airlines are not amused. Although the spokesman for Pan Am here had not yet seen the survey itself ("Mr. Ronay has not had the courtesy to send us one"), he had discovered most of what it contained including Pan Am's ranking third from the bottom among the 14 transatlantic airlines inspected by Ronay and his staff. Ronay's inspectors found the three Pan Am flights they took between London and New York last summer to be late taking off, crowded on board, inconsiderate to non-smokers ("a no-smoking seat may simply mean that the aisle is the only thing between them and a chain smoker's fog") and lacking in sufficient service ("the call button was totally ignored" and the stewardesses were described as being in "hiding" part of the time).
The furious man at Pan Am said the survey was unfair because Ronay's people flew on such few flights and did much of their traveling during the time when the DC-10s were grounded last summer and the overflow of passengers was squeezed into the 747 flights rated by Ronay.
Besides, the Pan Am spokesman said, "if Mr. Ronay is looking for more space and graciousness, fares would have to be raised by three or four times as much as they are now. Today, you can buy a reserved seat across the Atlantic for less than what it cost 30 or 40 years ago."
Ronay's opinions, he said, didn't stand up alongside facts, like Pan Am's 10 percent increase in business each year, including a large number of repeat customers, and the popularity of Pan Am's Kennedy Airport terminal, so roundly condemned by Ronay, "which at least 14 other airlines have asked to use with us."
A spokesman at El Al also said Ronay could not possibly have fairly judged his airline's New York-London-Tel Aviv service by inspecting just three flights and not appreciating El Al's need for strict security measures. tRonay ranked El Al at the very bottom of the ratings, criticizing the airline for its "rough and humiliating" security searches, "tired, unenthusiastic, indifferent and undisciplined" staff and "appalling food." Ronay said, "None of our inspectors would willingly fly El Al again."
The only happy airline executive was the spokesman for Delta, whose 18-month-old London-Atlanta service was rated by Ronay as the best across the Atlantic by a wide margin. The food was tasty, call buttons were answered and the toilets were kept clean, the inspectors reported. "All our reports," according to Ronay, "stressed the high quality of the service on Delta and the pleasure of being welcomed and waited on by staff who plainly didn't find it tiresome or demeaning to serve passengers."
Air Canada, TWA, and British Caledonian were ranked behind Delta near the top of the rating list, while Air India, British Airways, Braniff, Aer Lingus, Laker and Northwest Orient were in the middle in that order. Iran Air ranked between Pan Am and El Al at the bottom, while only one National flight was inspected, and received a better-than-average rating, because its DC-10s were subequently grounded.