AirAsia passengers line up December 29 at Changi International Airport in Singapore, a day after the disappearance of Flight QZ8501, which was headed to the country. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
The disappearance of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 demonstrates the futility of trying to pick a “safe” airline when booking any major carrier in the world. How do you judge who is safer in an overwhelmingly safe mode of travel that suffers a few high-profile, tragic crashes every year?
Should you go off an airline’s safety record? AirAsia had a nearly spotless record since it launched in 2001, with no fatalities in its large network of affiliates operating in several countries. Meanwhile, its biggest competitor, which is banned in the European Union for safety, has had the same number of fatal crashes as AirAsia in the same time period: one, in 2004.
Should you decide based on the type of plane? Flight 8501 was aboard one of the safest plane models out there, the Airbus A320, and the plane that went down had been through 13,600 flights without incident.
Should you consider the plane’s age? The AirAsia plane was young, but not that young, having been delivered in 2008.
What about bad weather, which this flight suffered? Planes fly through storms all the time without problems, and other planes crash in good weather.
Speaking of storms, we can use that to illustrate the overall safety of plane travel, regardless of airline.
“In the United States, the odds of dying in a plane crash are the same as being struck by lightning seven times,” Phil Derner, aviation expert founder of NYCAviation.com, told Yahoo Travel. “Automotive fatalities in the U.S. stand at 25,000 per year, while fatalities due to airline accidents in the U.S. average in the single digits, if any at all.”
An Indonesian Air Force crew member searches for the missing AirAsia flight 8501 jetliner over the waters of Karimata Strait in Indonesia. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)
There’s also this fact: according to the International Air Transport Association’s 2009 data, a person could fly every day for 3,859 years without being involved in an accident.
Despite all this information, deadly accidents do happen, and when you mix that with the tragic news of the 162 people on Flight 8501 perishing with their families in grief, it can leave a person feeling powerless about choosing a flight. There are resources you can look at to gather safety information, but it’s also best to keep this fact in mind: you’re almost certain to fly without being harmed, regardless of airline.
“For the most part, there is no such thing as an ‘unsafe’ airline,” Derner said. “Agencies such as the [Federal Aviation Administration] have very strict regulations for safe operations of air travel that all airlines must abide by, without exception. Even the lowest of low cost/no frills airlines jump through the same hoops as large major carriers, and are no less or more safe than the next.”
Indonesia has had a choppy aviation record in recent years, but if you’re flying to or from the country, AirAsia would be one of the safest options. It’s one of only five Indonesian airlines that are allowed to fly into European Union countries – AirAsia’s main competitor in Southeast Asia, Lion Air, is among the 60-plus Indonesian airlines banned from EU airspace since 2007 for safety reasons.
One of Lion Air’s eight accidents: this one happened in April 2013 on the sea in Bali, with no one killed. (AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati)
According to the Aviation Safety Network’s data, Lion Air has had eight accidents since it launched in 1999, with one fatal crash in 2004 leaving 25 out of 163 total occupants dead.
Before this latest disappearance, AirAsia had just one previous accident in 2011, when an Airbus A320 skidded on a wet runway while landing at Kuching Airport in Malaysia. Nobody was killed. So even when you contrast a “safe” airline with an “unsafe” one, far more people have now died on the safer choice.
This doesn’t mean that safety records should be ignored, or that plane disasters such as Flight 8501, or the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 earlier this year, aren’t without causes. It’s just that predicting the airline where these random events will occur is impossible, even if you read the fine print for how experienced their pilots are. The captain of Flight 370, for example, had more than 18,000 hours of flying experience.
“Until we start to see trends in accident data, which the industry does well, we can’t say that one airline is more safe than another,” aviation expert Sarina Houston told Yahoo Travel. “And accidents can’t typically be blamed on one element, anyway. We can’t say that a lack of pilot training alone, or airline maintenance woes, or weather, alone, is to blame in most cases.
A geographical breakdown of airline fatalities since 1945. (Credit: Airline Safety Network)
“More often than not, accidents occur after a chain of unfortunate events. Most of the time, a break in one single part of this chain of unfortunate events prevents an accident from occurring. Occasionally, the chain of events goes on and on until an accident occurs.”
A traveler could look to a “safest airlines” list such as the top 10 rankings compiled in January of this year by AirlineRatings.com. Quantas Airlines leads the list, which is based on fatality records and audits by airline governing bodies and government audits.
Indeed, Quantas hasn’t suffered a fatality in the jet era, which began in 1951. The top 10-ranked airlines all get a perfect seven-star ranking for safety. But then again, another 127 airlines got the same seven stars, leaving plenty of room at the top.
One of the top 10 airlines, Virgin Atlantic, had its own incident December 29, when a flight from London to Las Vegas had to make an emergency landing because of a problem with the Boeing 747's landing gear.
It might be simpler to just avoid the airlines that got three stars or less – there were almost 50 of those, including Lion Air. Three airlines got the lowest rating of one star: Kam Air (Afghanistan), SCAT (Kazakhstan), and Bluewing Airlnes (Suriname).
Here are the two-star airlines, none of which are based in the U.S.: Afghan Airways, Daallo Airlines, Eritrean Airlines, Lion Air, Merpati Airlines, Susi Air, and Air Bagan. These ratings might suggest that it's not the airlines, but the regions they serve, that are more dangerous.
Nevertheless, Derner said he wouldn’t feel any safer on Quantas than any other airline.
“None of that would ever affect my decision,” he said. “My feeling of safety comes down to my level of trust for that nation’s infrastructure and oversight.”
Where to look for this kind of information? Because there’s no comparable list online for airlines banned from the U.S., you can look at the EU blacklist for ideas of which airline you might want to avoid. You can decide for yourself if you’d rather skip Indonesia because of its many banned carriers.
If you want all the raw data of worldwide airline accidents and fatality statistics going back decades, including geographic location, airline, and plane type, it’s tough to beat the Aviation Safety Network’s database.
What other information might you consider as you look at these reams of accident information?
“While it’s tough to measure the safety of airlines, safety trends can tell us something about specific airlines,” Houston said. “If a single airline has three or four accidents in a year, and each investigation uncovers the same procedural error among pilots, for example, then one could assume that pilots aren’t being trained well enough, or that a procedural review is in order.”