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Secrets of the World's Best Airlines: What Makes Them Special

cathay pacific flight attendantsRemember when flying was fun? Retro shows such as "Pan Am" and "Mad Men" offer glimpses of a more civilized time, when flight attendants took care of your every whim, and you didn't have to worry about baggage fees, booking charges or competing with other passengers for limited bin space.

There are still a few oases in the sky, on airlines that offer excellent customer service and special touches that make flying more palatable. Some have won awards from rankings such as Skytrax and J.D. Power and Associates, while others enjoy favorable word of mouth from frequent travelers on forums such as FlyerTalk.

As you look at this list, you may notice that most of these airlines are based in other countries; sadly, most legacy U.S. airlines consistently lag behind their more glamorous foreign rivals as far as amenities and customer service. So for each airline, we've included at least one route from a U.S. airport that might tempt you to rethink long-haul travel after all.

Cathay Pacific
What Makes Them Special: The Hong Kong-based company has won airline of the year several times from Skytrax. Although a sex scandal in 2011 briefly tarnished its reputation, Cathay Pacific continues to be singled out for its comfortable seats across classes, as well as the quality of its meals (rice cookers, toasters and skillets are onboard).

Front of the Plane: Cathay Pacific's first-class seat has a massage function and converts into a full lie-flat bed (the airline also supplies pajamas). The quasi-suite also has an ottoman and an entertainment system in nine languages.

In the Back: Cathay Pacific's Premium Economy service comes with dedicated check-in counters, spacious seats and eight inches of seat recline. Even the basic economy seats come with numerous pockets to hold your amenities and ports that allow you to stream entertainment from your iPod or iPad onto the monitor.

Hot Route: If you're interested in those Premium Economy seats, look for them on flights between Hong Kong and Los Angeles or New York.

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Qatar Airways
What Makes Them Special: Based out of Doha in the Middle East, Qatar's national airline won the coveted airline of the year from Skytrax, the world's largest airline ranking and review site, in 2012 for the second year in a row. Although its U.S. routes are limited, the carrier scores big for the friendliness of its cabin staff, its entertainment system and the comfort of its seats.

Front of the Plane: Eat when you feel like it in first or business class; your meals are served when you want them, not simply when it's convenient for the crew. Amenity kits in first class feature Christian Dior products, while business class has Ferragamo Attimo.

In the Back: Even if you're in economy, you'll still get a welcome towel from the attendants. Qatar's economy seats have a higher "pitch" -- the distance between seats in front and in back of each other -- than on other airlines, and you'll be served two hot meals on a six-hour flight.

Hot Route: In the U.S., Qatar currently only flies out of Houston, Washington D.C. and New York. All flights are nonstop to Doha; from there, you can connect to hard-to-reach destinations like the Seychelles or the Maldives.

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Singapore Airlines
What Makes Them Special: Almost all lists of top-rated airlines include the Singapore-based carrier near the top, and with good reason: The company has centered its brand around customer service. While the iconic "Singapore Girl" image has been categorized as sexist, the carrier still issues strict grooming standards for both male and female crew. All stewards undergo a rigorous 15-week training program.

singapore airlines in flight entertainmentFront of the Plane: The company upped the ante for luxury travel a few years ago by introducing Singapore Airlines Suites, separate compartments blocked off with their own doors. The cabins include a stand-alone bed, a 35-inch leather chair and an LCD TV with full entertainment options.

In the Back: Economy seats are designed so that when you recline, you don't intrude as much into the space of the person behind you. Seats also have individual reading lamps (closer and less obtrusive than the overhead lights on most planes) and in-seat power supply.

Hot Route: Clocking in at 18 1/2 hours, Singapore flies what is currently the world's longest nonstop commercial route between Newark and Singapore. (This route is scheduled to end in fall 2013.)

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Emirates Airlines
What Makes Them Special: Everything is over-the-top in Dubai -- and this airline from the United Arab Emirates is no exception. From the striking draped-scarf headgear that their attendants wear to the entertainment system that offers more channel choices than other airlines, the carrier doesn't shy away from standing out. Emirates was also the first airline to allow people to use their cell phones in flight (the service isn't available on all routes yet).

Front of the Plane: Your golden ticket comes with perks before you even sit down: In some cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, elite passengers receive a free, chauffeur-driven ride to the airport. The Emirates lounges are also among the best in the world, with showers, a full buffet and bar service.

In the Back: Economy-class customers receive free wine and cocktails with their meals. For a fee, you can receive text messages and e-mail at your seat.

Hot Route: Emirates added nonstop service from Seattle to Dubai last year.

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JetBlue Airways
What Makes Them Special: J.D. Power and Associates ranked JetBlue tops in customer satisfaction for a North American low-cost carrier in its 2013 annual survey, scoring the carrier high on its aircraft and in-flight services. Passengers love the New York-based airline's personal entertainment systems, free checked bag policy and unlimited snacks. There's even a JetPaws program for furry guests.

Front of the Plane: While JetBlue doesn't have a typical first class, passengers can purchase more legroom by buying an Even More Space seat that has six additional inches of pitch. In some cities, Even More Space comes with Even More Speed -- i.e., expedited boarding.

In the Back: Worried about missing the game? JetBlue's entertainment system boasts live DIRECTV, so you can watch ESPN, news or your favorite shows as they broadcast. The airline is currently in the process of installing broadband Wi-Fi service across its fleet.

Hot Route: Anything that goes through JetBlue's amenity-filled T5 terminal at JFK Airport in New York.

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Alaska Airlines
alaska airlines plane mountainsWhat Makes Them Special: Alaska Airlines took top honors for traditional carriers in the 2013 J.D. Power customer satisfaction survey. Passengers praise the Seattle-based airline's usually chipper flight crew; the boarding, deplaning and baggage process (if you don't get your baggage within 20 minutes of arriving at your gate, Alaska will give you a $20 voucher or 2,000 points), as well as check-in and reservation services. Bonus points for a mobile app that actually works at the gate when you need it.

Front of the Plane: You'll notice that the list above didn't include anything about the seats or in-flight amenities; Alaska lags behind the others on this list in this department. First-class seats do come with meals and drinks influenced by the Pacific Northwest or Hawaii, depending on destination.

In the Back: Bring your credit card if you want to be entertained: Alaska rents personal entertainment devices pre-loaded with movies and TV shows. Almost all of the planes have Wi-Fi for purchase. The coffee comes from Starbucks.

Hot Route: Alaska is planning new service from Portland, Oregon to Atlanta and Dallas, beginning later this year.

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    --written by Chris Gray Faust

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