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How to Tell If Your Airline Is Safe

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 2/15/2019 Kristin Majcher
There are a few quick ways to check your airline's safety record. © T.M. Detwiler There are a few quick ways to check your airline's safety record.

Say you’re planning a dream vacation to a far-flung locale, and an airline you’ve never heard of is offering a great price. But what about its seat pitch, in-flight entertainment, and most importantly, safety record?

For starters, it's important to remember that commercial aviation is statistically very safe. The Netherlands-based Aviation Safety Network reported 15 fatal accidents last year with 556 fatalities, but still counted 2018 as “one of the safest years ever for commercial aviation.” In 2017, the aviation industry saw its safest year yet, when about 4.1 billion passengers flew on 41.8 million scheduled flights, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Of course, what passengers really want to know at the end of the day is whether the airline they're flying is safe, period. It’s possible to look up accident reports through the Aviation Safety Network’s database, and scan the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) website for U.S. incidents. But are statistics alone enough to say whether an airline is considered safe? Arnold Barnett, George Eastman Professor of Management Science and Professor of Statistics at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, says there’s more to the picture.

“Sometimes the way an adverse event is handled tells us more about the safety of an airline than its lack of safety,” says Barnett, who has been studying the risks of fatal aviation accidents for decades. He gives the example of a 1983 incident in which an Air Canada 767 flight ran out of fuel due to a metric conversion issue, and landed safely due to the expertise of the pilots. One one hand, you could interpret the event as a blemish on the airline’s aviation record that calls its safety into question, or view it positively because the trained pilots successfully handled a problem in a high-pressure situation.

While the topic of aviation safety can be complicated, there are some tools to gauge whether a carrier is meeting internationally-recognized safety standards.

Consider the Country

Most of us think of specific airlines with their own identities. However, Barnett says that when it comes to aviation safety, considering the carrier’s home country is important. After all, each country’s aviation agency oversees and regulates things such as training procedures and aircraft airworthiness: That would be the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the U.S., the European Aviation Safety Agency for EU-based airlines, and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) for Chinese carriers. These agencies are ultimately responsible for the aviation safety oversight in their own country, but look to international safety standards to make sure they’re on the same page with one another.

That’s where the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) comes in. Among other things, it reviews just how well countries are monitoring their airlines and aviation. (You can compare countries’ performance using this tool.)

Countries can also place limits on which airlines can fly into its airspace. The U.S., for example, does this through the FAA’s International Aviation Safety Assessment Program (IASA). The agency puts other countries in two groups: Category 1 for countries who have acceptable aviation oversight, and Category 2 for those who don’t. As of August 2018, the Category 2 countries included Bangladesh, Curaçao, Ghana, Sint Maarten, and Thailand. A Category 2 rating means that airlines from these countries cannot add new U.S. services until they take corrective measures, whereas Category 1 countries have no restrictions. Though informative, note that the list isn’t a comprehensive way to keep tabs on aviation safety, as countries disappear from the list after four years if they don’t plan to fly to the U.S. or codeshare with its airlines.

Based on data about fatal aviation events from 2008-2017, Barnett categorizes countries into groups of three main risk levels—all of which are low in the relative scheme of things. Under one metric, the chance of getting killed in an air accident in places including the U.S., European Union, and China is about 1 in 33 million. (In other words, you could take a flight every day of the year and not be in a fatal crash for an average of about 90,000 years, he notes.) The risk for level-two countries such as Brazil, India, and Thailand is about 1 in 7 million. Countries with the highest risk, such as Uganda and Cambodia, would rise to about 1 in 1.3 million.

Check for EU’s Banned Airlines

The European Union has a more airline-centric approach to the way it determines compliance with international safety standards. These are outlined in its EU Air Safety List; the last version was updated on November 28, 2018.

Technically, there are two lists: Annex A, which includes airlines banned in Europe, and Annex B, which includes airlines that have some operating restrictions. Iran Air, for example, is on the "B" list because it cannot fly Fokker F100 and Boeing 747s into European airspace, most likely because of concerns over the age and airworthiness of the planes. You can download the lists as a PDF document, or search by country via an interactive tool.

While the list does call out specific airlines, the EU does ban all the carriers from a certain country if they believe that country doesn't comply with a certain safety standard. These include: Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Kyrgyz Republic, Liberia, Libya, Nepal, Sudan, Sao Tome and Principe, and Sierra Leone. Some countries have only specific airlines banned, such as Suriname’s Blue Wing Airlines and Venezuela’s Avior Airlines.

See if the Airline Has Done a Safety Audit

One internationally-recognized airline safety measure is the International Air Transport Association’s Operational Safety Audit (IOSA). This checks airlines to make sure they meet or exceed international operational safety requirements, and looks at an airline’s safety across areas including flight operations, ground handling, security management, and maintenance. An airline registered as IOSA-compliant must renew this status every two years. As of December 2018, there were 432 airlines on the registry, and IATA says it performs more than 150 audits each year. The website shows which airlines have undergone the audit, as well as the expiration date. IATA says carriers who completed the audit had a nearly four-times better all-accident rate than those who didn’t in 2017.

Look Into Alliances

The Oneworld alliance (which includes American Airlines, British Airways, and Cathay Pacific) requires “Oneworld Connect” partners maintain the IOSA audit, and Star Alliance (which includes United Airlines, Lufthansa, and Air Canada) requires the same for its “Connecting Partner” airlines. These are airlines that don’t officially belong to the alliances, but might share some benefits. Fiji Airways, for example, partners with Oneworld under this model, providing the alliance’s members with perks such as priority check-in or boarding benefits, depending on their level.

Read the "Rankings"—But Take Them With a Grain of Salt

AirlineRatings.com uses several sources of information, including the above-mentioned tools, to rate airlines on the basis of safety using its own methodology. It ranked Qantas as the safest airline for 2018 in January. Its seven-star rating takes into account factors, placing great importance on the IOSA and ICAO audits as well as other factors, such as fleet age and an airline’s accident record.

So, how seriously should passengers scrutinize these ratings?

“Our safety rating is a very good guide to which airlines are the safest,” says Airline Ratings’ Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey Thomas, adding that no rating system is perfect. “That is not to say that airlines that haven't done IOSA are not safe. Our position is there is no question that an airline with seven stars is safer than an airline that has fewer stars.”

But some industry organizations, including IATA and the airline ratings website Skytrax, do not support individual airline safety rankings, and raise concerns about the ability to provide accurate rankings based on available data.

The bottom line? Though there have recently been several high-profile accidents, flying is still considered to be very safe. No matter when—or where—you fly, considering the country of operation and audit results can provide some guidance.

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