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Southwest Airlines ranks last for safety among US airlines in recent study

SF Gate logo SF Gate 1/3/2020 Chris McGinnis

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It’s probably no surprise that a new global safety study concluded that for 2020, Qantas is the world’s safest airline (remember that famous discussion in the movie “Rain Man”?). But it’s definitely a surprise that Southwest Airlines ranked so far down on the AirlineRatings.com list – dead last among U.S. carriers – earning only three out of a possible seven stars.

Most of the other U.S. carriers in the study earned a full seven stars (out of seven), including American, Delta, United, Alaska, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Frontier, Sun Country, Silver Airways (a regional airline serving Florida and the Bahamas), Cape Air (a small-plane turboprop carrier in New England, south Florida and the Caribbean) and Omni Air International (a charter carrier). However, only Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines rank among the world's top 20 safest carriers, according to AirlineRatings analysis of 405 carriers worldwide.

The three U.S. airlines that didn’t earn seven stars were Spirit, Allegiant and PenAir (a commuter carrier in Alaska). But each of them had a rating of four stars, still better than Southwest’s three.

Southwest’s three safety stars puts it in the company of carriers such as Aerocaribbean (Cuba), Avia Traffic Co. (Kyrgyzstan), Novoair (Bangladesh), Tajik Air (Tajikistan) and Turkmenistan Airlines, as well as Air Panama, Ethiopian Airlines and northern Canada’s First Air.

Even with three stars, Southwest still ranked higher than two-star airlines in the study such as Iraqi Airways and Afghanistan’s Ariana Afghan and Kam Air. (The study found just a single company that merited only one safety star:  Nepal Airlines.)

So what happened to Southwest? One standard that most carriers easily passed in the AirlineRatings.com study was an absence of passenger fatalities over the past 10 years, and that’s one thing that tripped up Southwest. You might recall that in April 2018, a Wells Fargo Bank executive on a Southwest flight from New York's LaGuardia to Dallas died after she was struck by a piece of shrapnel that crashed through her window when an engine failed and blew apart. The B737 had to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia. That was the first U.S. airline passenger fatality since 2009.

The federal government shutdown delayed Southwest's plans for Hawaii flights and frustrated travelers anxiously awaiting new service.

But there’s an even bigger factor – and not an entirely fair one. The study placed major importance on whether an airline has passed an operational safety audit (IOSA) conducted by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade organization of the world’s airlines. And Southwest didn’t check that box – although that seems to be a technicality. “Registering for IOSA certification and auditing is not mandatory,” AirlineRatings.com noted. “Therefore an airline that does not have IOSA certification may have either failed the IOSA audit or alternatively chosen not to participate.”

An IOSA audit is required for airlines that belong to IATA, but according to an online list of IATA carriers, Southwest is not a member. Because U.S. airlines are so closely regulated and inspected by the FAA, Southwest’s lack of an IOSA audit doesn’t mean it’s not safe. But its failure to get that audit cost it three stars out of seven in the AirlineRatings.com safety study.

AirlineRatings.com said its safety study considers “a comprehensive range of factors that include audits from aviation’s governing and industry bodies, government audits, airline’s crash and serious incident record, profitability, industry-leading safety initiatives, and fleet age.” It does not consider the size or number of safe flights completed each year by the airline, which would likely boost the rating of Southwest considering its sheer number of incident-free flights every year.

From Perth, Australia, Geoffrey Thomas, editor and publisher at AirlineRatings.com told SFGATE, "Southwest is a great airline, but is not amongst our safest airlines due to the fact that it has not completed the International Air Transport Association Operational Safety Audit or IOSA. This is an audit that is done every two years and covers over 1000 parameters many of which are operational and safety areas." He added that since Southwest has not participated in an IOSA audit, it has not made the top 20 list in any of the five years this study has been published. Using the sort function on the online list, we were unable to remove the IOSA criteria to see how Southwest ranked without that.

Rating airlines on safety is a touchy, difficult subject. For example, a competing airline rating site, SkyTrax.com, states that it "does not publish a comparative rating of airline safety standards or airline safety record details, because there is no single accurate, global reference of safety standards and/or safety incidents which provides information that can in our opinion be truly trusted by passengers, or which supplies total accuracy to customers in choosing an airline... It is critical that any single, global measure of airline safety provides exactly that – a single rating format with no gaps caused by inconsistency in the way safety incidents may or may not be reported."

Southwest Airlines provided the following statement to SFGATE on Friday: "As we approach nearly 50 years of air service, Southwest has safely transported more U.S. air travelers each year than any other carrier, for well more than a decade. Safety has been, is and will remain our number one priority and focus.   We note that the primary driver in ranking carriers within this study is IOSA registration, which, to date, as an airline serving primarily US destinations, we have chosen not to pursue. We regularly evaluate whether an additional affiliation with IATA, which administers the IOSA program, would make sense as our international footprint grows. "

In declaring Qantas to be the world’s safest airline, AirlineRatings.com noted that “over its 99-year history the world’s oldest continuously operating airline has amassed a truly amazing record of firsts in operations and safety and is now accepted as the industry’s most experienced airline.” It noted that Qantas has pioneered a number of safety-related technologies such as “real-time monitoring of its engines across its fleet using satellite communications, which has enabled the airline to detect problems before they become a major safety issue.”

Other carriers in the study’s top 20 safest airlines include Air New Zealand, EVA Air, Etihad, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Alaska Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways, Virgin Australia, Hawaiian Airlines, Virgin Atlantic Airlines, TAP Portugal, SAS, Royal Jordanian, Swiss, Finnair, Lufthansa, Aer Lingus, and KLM.

Thomas said that US carriers Delta, American and United, all had incidents involving allegedly intoxicated pilots during 2019, which ruled them ineligible for the top 20 list.

AirlineRatings.com also issued a separate list of the “Top 10 Safest & Best Low-cost Airlines.” That list includes Air Arabia, Flybe, Frontier, HK Express, IndiGo, JetBlue, Volaris, Vueling, Westjet, and Wizz.

You can scroll through a complete rating list of all the study’s airlines here.

Read all recent TravelSkills posts here

Chris McGinnis is SFGATE's senior travel correspondent. You can reach him via email or follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Don't miss a shred of important travel news by signing up for his FREE biweekly email updates!

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