Why I Don’t Choose Airlines Based On Their Safety Record

Earlier I wrote a post about how I’m considering flying Saudia from Istanbul to Kuala Lumpur via Riyadh, thanks to a super cheap first class fare they have published in the market. Reader Samoa asked the following question on the blog post, which I figured I’d address in a post:

Is safety standards ever a concern for you when picking airlines????

The short answer is “no.”

Perhaps it’s the long answer which is more interesting. Ironically I don’t make decisions based on an airline’s safety record despite the fact that I once had a fear of flying, and despite the fact that I almost religiously look at airlines’ safety records (I’ve seen every episode of “Air Crash Investigation”), and despite the fact that I constantly think of all the things which could go wrong on a plane.

So, why am I not concerned about my “safety” when picking an airline?

What is a “safe” airline?

Whenever I write about flying certain airlines, I get comments and emails from concerned readers talking about how unsafe an airline is. Typically it’s from people who claim to be in the know and talk about the horrible safety procedures at the airline. While I certainly believe that, these are also often airlines which have had an excellent safety record over the past many years.

So how do we define a “safe” airline? Is it…

  • An airline which hasn’t had a fatal accident in a long time
  • An airline which is known to have good safety and maintenance procedures
  • An airline which has a modern fleet
  • An airline with good cockpit resource management
  • An airline which has the lowest ratio of casualties to carried passengers

Ethiopian-787

Let me give a few examples of airlines which passengers are sometimes concerned about flying with:

  • Neither of Malaysia Airlines’ recent crashes really reflect an airline which is otherwise unsafe; otherwise they haven’t had any fatal accidents in over 20 years
  • Kuwait Airways has an outdated fleet and many argue the airline has bad maintenance, but they’ve never had a fatal crash; the only people who have died on Kuwait Airways have been from hijackings
  • Emirates and Etihad have never had a fatal accident; however, a friend who works in a capacity where he deals with the airlines’ safety facilities suggests that one of the carriers is extremely precise and thorough with maintenance, while the other is extremely sloppy, so he refuses to fly one of the carriers

Emirates-A380

The point is, none of us actually have perfect information when it comes to judging an airline’s safety situation, given that most of us don’t know what’s actually going on behind the scenes at all airlines. There are so many inputs which lead to the safety of an airline, including cockpit resource management and fleet maintenance.

An airline which hasn’t had any fatal accidents might not actually be the safest to fly. Conversely, an airline having had fatal accidents isn’t necessarily indicative of such an event happening again.

Put another way, selecting an airline based on safety is significantly more extreme than only getting in Ubers or taxis which are a certain make & model.

To sum it up, crap happens, and I hope I’m not there when it does. But I’m not going to apply too much strategy to a situation where the odds are 99.999999% in my favor.

One of these days....
One of these days….

To what degree do you consider safety when choosing an airline, and what do you look at most? Average fleet age, maintenance policies, historical safety record, pilot culture, or something else?

Comments

  1. No inside knowledge but I rather think it is the smaller of the 2 airlines that is a little safety slapdash…? I doubt you are able to tell us.

  2. I’m with you. Oddly enough, I am more concerned by the metal I am on (Boeing > Airbus) versus safety record. Those records don’t reflect pilot error or terrorism, which are much more likely to cause an issue – and I can’t control either one by looking at safety records.

  3. That’s part of a bigger picture, that of stereotypes and misconceptions.

    People nowadays build their opinions based on what they’ve heard rather than what they know, and they go on to defend these opinions as if it were a life or death issue.

    As you mentioned, we don’t know everything, and if we live our lives in fear of what we don’t know then we might as well stay at home.

    The examples you mentioned are excellent and illustrative, and I have to say that I agree with what you said.

  4. Leave it to the regulators who actually have the information and data to determine what’s safe. The “EU Air Safety List” is a good place to start.

  5. Where do you draw the line, Lucky? For example a lot of carriers are banned from flying to the EU. And many airlines, particularly in Thailand and Indonesia, have very questionable safety programs.

  6. Laughable that people so much as consider manufacturer when thinking about safety. They are both incredibly safe, but Boeing has had more mechanical failure issues than Airbus, for those keeping track at home.

  7. You don’t choose airlines based on your own sayings either:

    http://onemileatatime.boardingarea.com/2013/03/30/my-royal-jordanian-flight-from-hell/
    ‘I’m going to think twice about which airlines I fly. For one, I’ll never fly Royal Jordanian again.’ – Am I wrong, or just recently did you say that you’d be choosing RJ? (I have nothing against RJ, I’m just wondering why you are going against your own saying).

    Also, so which one has sloppy maintenance? Does anyone else know or is this a ‘lucky EXCLUSIVE’ (wow!) news? Thanks for telling me too Ben, because I am flying on both of those carriers next week!

  8. The FAA publishes a list of countries that do not meet ICAO standards, called the International Aviation Safety Assessment Program.

  9. The “If it’s not Boeing, I ain’t going” attitude is purely Trump-ish ‘MURICA b.s. Go look at the data: http://www.airsafe.com/events/models/rate_mod.htm

    Best comps are A318/319/320/321 vs. B737 and A330/A340 vs. B777. The differences are tiny.

    MileValue made a great point that flying in many developing nations may be more dangerous than it is here but it’s still way safer than being on the road.

    The most dangerous thing 99% of people do every day is get in a car or walk as a pedestrian on a road with idiotic drivers. Driverless cars can’t come soon enough.

  10. ICAO audits are not reliable because there is no category for employee treatment. Its all based on how good the “paper work” not real work. It audits some countries very frequently while some audits are decade old.

    Safety Ratings sites like JACDEC and AirlineRatings always tweak methodology and massage data to get desired output.

    Incident/Accidents reporting sites also biased based on their commercial and national solidarity reasons.

    Media reports also biased based on commercial (yes silence and negative publicity is for sale) and national solidarity reasons.

    Airlines can be setup such that an fatal accident of a subsidiary never shows up as main brand by having separate AOC.

    Last but not least CAA peer audits,downgrades are mostly political in nature. Zero value addition to aviation safety.

    So it is a wise move to ignore safety ratings.

  11. Airlines I won’t fly because of their safety record:

    Aeroflot, Allegiant.

    That’s the list. I had no problem flying Valujet before or after 592.

  12. I personally refuse to fly American, Delta, United or even any American carrier because I feel that it’s a major “target” for terrorists. I had to fly on a more than one occasion JFK-LAX and I did it with CX with a stop in YVR and HKG.

    Have I flown any American carrier post 9/11? Sure, jetBlue and Continental but those weren’t my choice as the military gave me whatever when I signed up to join. Even then, my heart was literally beating faster than normal.

    I’d feel a bit more comfortable flying smaller airlines like Hawaiian, Alaskan, jetBlue and such but not considering it anytime soon.

    I certainly want to do an Island hopper flight which United offers in the Pacific and I’d actually consider it since terrorists really don’t care about that part of the world!

    And another thing, there are more cars on the road than planes in the air. The possibility of you being in a car crash is greater than on a plane. Or so I’ve been told 😉

  13. Just to add, I feel more safe on a widebody than a narrowbody especially when going through turbulence. The flights above with jetBlue and Continental were my only narrowbody flights ever. Once again, I had no say in flights given to me.

  14. Lucky,

    Typo here maybe? –

    “Neither of Malaysia Airlines’ recent crashes really reflect an airline which is otherwise unsafe; otherwise they haven’t had any fatal accidents in over 20 years”

    Did you mean “safe” instead?

  15. I avoid any airline on any kind of blacklist, but other than that I have no concern with security with it comes to selecting an airline.

  16. Not choosing based on safety record is one thing … flying, and by extension, giving money to a state sponsored airline when that state is partially responsible for 9/11 (and no, I’m not talking about Emirates, Richard Anderson) is much worse. I highly encourage you not to fly Saudia.

  17. “Laughable that people so much as consider manufacturer when thinking about safety. They are both incredibly safe, but Boeing has had more mechanical failure issues than Airbus, for those keeping track at home.”

    Perhaps – hard to control for airlines of similar caliber in terms of maintenance, etc. On the whole, I agree they’re both incredibly safe when maintained well and flown by capable pilots.

    What I do know is that the Airbus “flying computer” design seems to lend itself to poorly trained pilots not understanding what the plane is doing and sometimes even how the plane is oriented. This is arguably not Airbus’s fault, but if 2 machines do the same thing and one is simpler to operate, you could certainly argue it’s the better design.

  18. @Justin:

    Simpler to operate is relative. In the end it all comes down to how the pilots are trained. A poorly trained pilot can do just as much damage on an Airbus as he can do on a Boeing. Maybe the situations that lead to disaster are different.

    We simple don’t have enough real world data points (fortunately) to actually get statistically significant results from trend lines and probability assessments. Most of those cockpit philosophy evaluations come from simulator sessions where Boeing and Airbus obviously see different things. Boeing and Airbus couldn’t settle this debate and both of them have their arguments. Compared to traditional engineering problems, human factors ist still a relatively new field after all…

  19. Both China Airlines and Korean Air had troubled safety reputations in the 1990s.

    “China Airlines invested heavily to refurbish its image, which had been left tarnished by a poor safety record. In 1998, the airline brought in Germany’s Technik AG to overhaul its operations and set new training and safety standards for the airlines.

    It also implemented a new system to evaluate crew performance to identify potential threats and minimizing safety-related risks.”

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/crash-puts-taiwans-air-safety-in-spotlight-1406211507
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_Air_incidents_and_accidents
    https://flightfox.com/tradecraft/worlds-deadliest-airlines-debunked

  20. Rainman, Qantas etc. In fact Qantas is my preferred ride. Given that nowhere is close here in Australia, even close is faraway, Qantas have a bank of knowledge about flying long haul and attendant fleet management. Always nice to see a Flying Kangaroo in some port waiting to take you home

  21. Hi Ben. My question is slightly of the more personal nature. Would you not fly on any of the airlines if their home countries are virulently discriminatory against LGBTQ people? Like Saudi Arabia and Air Saudia.

  22. I ALWAYS think of safety when choosing an airline. Like you Lucky, “Airplanes are among my favorite thing in the world, but they made me feel terrible.” My fear first kicked in around 15 years ago – out of nowhere, I was suddenly overcome by terror halfway through an uneventful day flight from Paris to Toulouse. From then on, I travelled between Australia, Asia and Europe in agony! In February 2009, I was living in France and decided to grip it. I signed up to Air France’s fear of flying day course at Orly airport and heard from a psychologist, pilot and steward who all helped explain how safe and normal flying was. We then went into an A320 simulator which was nerve-wracking at first but fun by the end. Sadly, four months later, as you know, one of their planes went down and set back any progress I had made. Just for the record I’ve never flown Air France since and hope I never will.

    Since moving to the UK five years ago, I’ve come a long way and fly regularly and no longer avoid it like I used to (even though I do still experience the fear, especially on take off). I think this is because I usually always fly BA if I can. Now, I know they get mixed reviews in terms of product (never going to be a fan of that rear facing business class seat) and the ageing state of some of their aircraft (inside and out) is disappointing but they are, in my experience, consistent and, I feel, trustworthy and communicative. I don’t know enough about pilot culture (apart from observing that they seem to love a fast landing) or their maintenance procedures but I try and rationalise that they are responsible and logical with customer interests and safety at heart. These are the same reasons why I always choose Qantas as well when I go home to Australia.

    Like you I watch all the Air Crash investigations and the one about AF447 versus the one about QF32 confirm this too. Couldn’t be more different and that is definitely down to culture.

  23. Based on the images in this post – along with Ethiopian and Kuwait Airways, both not known for their supreme safety etiquette – he also posted an image of Emirates. And based on the recent FlyDubai accident and revelations, I am guessing your friend will not be flying Emirates!

  24. We often forget that every day, there are aging planes that land safely in parts of the world where there are no regular maintenance check ups, spare parts are suspect, and ATC is non existent. It’s incredible what these hulking beasts of metal can do.

    Do people think about the lack of maintenance on bridges, rail and roads when they get drive or get on a train? Of course not. The bridge you’re driving along is more likely to fall to the ground than the airplane you’re in. It’s all in the head, and it gets into my head sometimes too.

    Having said that, the fact that I can get there safely by plane does not mean I want to get there…

  25. True from a logical standpoint, but I do have personal bugbears (Air France in particular) and preferences (BA may not be the best business class, but as you said too, they do sound so professional).
    Now dying to know which one of the two gulf carriers is sloppy…. any clue? 🙂

  26. I try to fly US carriers whenever possible simply because I have read that the pilots have more training, are subject to more oversight, etc. But I also feel pretty safe on major European airlines as well and have even flown EasyJet a couple of times. I would never fly Aeroflot, although I did fly the Ukrainian airline Aerosvit when it existed and felt pretty safe (and had a great first class seat for the cost of a coach seat on a US carrier).

  27. Re: Susan’s mentioning of Qantas above: Southwest has also never had an accident resulting in a passenger fatality

  28. “the only people who have died on Kuwait Airways have been from hijackings”

    I don’t know about you, but I would consider that part of the “Safety Record”

  29. @ Justin – Sorry to say but you are kidding yourself if you don’t think that Boeing, largely in their newer wide-body aircraft, aren’t just as “flying computer” as Airbus. In fact, Boeing based many of their systems off Airbus because computers can react far faster than a human. The amount of flying actually done by a pilot on most flights averages around 4 minutes (2 mins take-off, 2 mins landing). The rest is all handled by computer nowadays and the safety record is quite amazing. The largest distinction is that the Airbus system tends to favor the computer while the Boeing system tends to favor the pilot. Both have pros and cons. Take AF 447 for instance, a Airbus A330. I just watched the Air Crash Investigation episode again yesterday. Had the pitot tubes not frozen over causing invalid/no airspeed information, the autopilot would have stayed engaged and been able to compensate for completely wrong inputs made by the pilot. That autopilot would have saved the doomed aircraft from those inexperienced, fearful “knee-jerk” pilots. Similarly OZ 214, a Boeing 777, also had inexperienced pilots at the helm who were relying on the advanced autopilot controls they didn’t understand instead of flying the plane.

    Point being that neither manufacturer can compensate fully for lack of cockpit resource management or lack of skill by the pilots. It was extremely poor in both cases. Nobody knew who was actually flying the aircraft and inputs were completely opposite of each other between the pilots effectively cancelling them out; especially true in AF 447. Both Airbus and Boeing use extremely advanced computer systems to control the aircraft but if the pilots don’t understand how to use them, they are flying blind. Many pilots have become more “systems operators” it seems relying on the aircraft to do the work and when an emergency arises, they panic and don’t know how to respond appropriately. That has nothing to do with the manufacturer, both of which have extremely safe and proven safety records. They’ve both had crashes and problems, sure, but on a whole considering there are over 100K flights around the world each day that go off without incident, millions per year with both aircraft manufacturer types in the skies, I think that speaks volumes to the safety of each. We base our fears largely on the media who, when an accident happens, have it on repeat 24×7 for days blaming everything from the weather to what the pilots had for breakfast. It’s not an accurate representation of the facts. Statistically it also represents a VERY SMALL amount of accident and/or death often at the hands of pilots, not the aircraft.

    Also, while terrible, terrorism accounts for a very small percentage of death as well, which obviously has nothing to do with an airline or manufacturer (Mike O). US-based airlines have largely gone untouched in that regard for decades until 9/11. We probably have more highly-trained crews ready to deal with that again, should it arise, than most foreign airlines flying in regions that make them a bigger target. The airline with the strictest security in the world, El Al, has been a target far more than any US carrier ever. Of course, if it makes you feel more safe to avoid, that is of course your prerogative but keep in mind the statistics of foreign carriers and terrorism vs US carriers and I think it will help put things in better perspective. It will save you from more agonizing hours in the air especially if you are fearful of flying to begin with (FYI former US military here and understand you don’t have much choice when they say “go” and hand you orders to show up for a flight).

    I don’t largely base my decisions on who to fly on news reports or general public perception. Every report can be “spun” in favor or against an airline or manufacturer and are really subjective. Read 10 different reports and you’ll likely form 10 different opinions in some cases. Try to enjoy the miracle that is flight and remember that we are at FAR MORE risk walking out our front doors each morning vs flying.

  30. I’ve watched every Air Crash Investigation episode and consider myself an expert.
    AA 587 missed my mom’s house by 100 yards.
    Quants used have a perfect record up until “titanic”. They were lucky to walk away with that. That incident had the makings of pilot error by trying to over compensate .
    I have no idea why my avatar on this website is Ben Franklin.

  31. Quantas had an incident around 2010 tarnishing their perfect record . “titanic in the sky” involving engine failure on one of the A380 engines. They diverted and made an emergency landing.

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