NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Does the notion of air travel conjure images of gate agents bickering over carry-on bags, harried flight attendants and adult-sized bodies crammed into a child-sized seats?
Well, guess what: on some airlines, a flight is a trip to be enjoyed, not endured. A massive survey released last week names airlines that customers actually like to fly.
The poll, conducted by London-based consultancy Skytrax, asked people to grade the world's airlines according to a broad variety of criteria. Taken over the course of a year, it tallied more than 12 million responses, from citizens of 94 countries.
The winner was Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong-based carrier most Americans only get to fly if they're making the long haul to Asia.
Click here to see complete results.
Cathay won particular praise for its first-class and business-class service, but Skytrax made it clear that the best airlines keep folks happy back in the cheap seats, too.
"This is the most representative survey of airline passengers across the globe," said Skytrax spokesman Peter Miller in a statement. "It encompasses all passenger types, be they business travelers, vacationers or backpackers."
The study looked at the entire travel process, from booking a ticket to arriving at your destination.
Airlines were graded for their performance both on the ground and aloft. At the airport, that meant the efficiency of check-in and boarding procedures, handling of delays, even whether gate crew were friendly.
In flight, respondents were asked to assess onboard amenities and the conditions of the planes, as well as service in the sky. Premiums were placed on cabin cleanliness and the comfort and layout of seats, as well as the food.
Where's the United States?
As is typical with surveys of this sort, few U.S. carriers scored very highly. It's tempting to say that's a function of their financial problems -- except for the fact that business conditions are challenging for airlines all over the world.
Or, you could argue that some of the best performers are national airlines that receive generous financial assistance from their governments. Credible -- until you remember those billion-dollar bailouts Washington handed out after September 11.
In fact, the problem for U.S. airlines is partly logistical. Americans hop around the country on a series of short flights. Delta can only offer so much service on a 30-minute shuttle flight, for example.
Covering longer distances domestically often means confronting the hub-and-spoke systems, too. Even if the Southwest flight attendants make you chuckle, you're still changing planes in Dallas.
Most of the survey's top performers -- Qantas from Australia, or Dubai-based Emirates -- fly a greater percentage of long haul trips. On a 12-hour flight, your staff had better be nice.
"Cathay Pacific was repeatedly singled out for the high quality and consistency of its front-line staff, in both the airport environment and onboard flights," according to Miller. "Cathay certainly seems to have achieved its motto of 'service straight from the heart' and wowed passengers accordingly."
Cultural factors might also be at play. Robert Crandall, the crusty former boss at American Airlines, used to say that customers always talk in surveys about food and legroom. But when it comes to buying tickets, the only thing that ever matters to them is price.
In other words, good service is nice but we'll put up with a lot if it means a cheaper seat. Americans, as a rule, won't pay more for a plusher seat or better food. And U.S. airlines know it.
Actually, the U.S. carrier that performed best on the Skytrax survey was JetBlue. The scrappy New York-based discounter was named the world's top low-cost airline.
That makes sense to me. After all, JetBlue combines some of its nation's best cultural values. It's innovative -- love that satellite TV service -- with an energetic workforce. On the operations side, the company hums with an efficiency to make an MBA proud, streamlined from seats to fleet.
Efficiency is good for investors and bargain-hunting consumers, of course. But what if you long for a bit of luxury? Fly the friendly skies -- of Asia.
Click here to see complete results.
The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.