Ask the pilot

What are the safest airlines? Why is that a dumb question?

Topics: Air Travel, Ask the Pilot, Business,

Appearing below are Ask the Pilot’s Quarter-Century Safety Achievers — a list of airlines that have gone fatality-free over the past 25 years (compiled using data mostly from Certain small companies are omitted, though I’ve chosen to retain national flag carriers where applicable, regardless of size. All qualifying airlines have been in existence since at least 1980:

Air Berlin, Air Jamaica, Air Malta, Air Mauritius, Air Niugini (Papua New Guinea), Air New Zealand, Air Portugal, Air Seychelles, Air Tanzania, Air Zimbabwe, Aer Lingus, All Nippon Airways (one crew member killed by deranged passenger), Austrian Airlines, Bahamasair, Britannia Airways, BWIA West Indies Airways (Trinidad and Tobago), Cathay Pacific, Cayman Airways, Finnair, Ghana Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, Icelandair, Lacsa (Costa Rica), Meridiana (Italy), Monarch Airlines (U.K.), Pluna (Uruguay), Royal Brunei, Royal Jordanian, Southwest Airlines, Syrianair, TACA (El Salvador), Tunis Air, Tyrolean Airways (Austria), Qantas.

Several of the above have perfect records pre-dating 1980. Airsafe’s own rankings reach back an additional 10 years. I chose 1980 to best account for the changeover period from older, first-generation jets and prop liners to what most would consider “modern” fleets.

You may or may not be surprised by some of the finishers — second- or third-world operators not normally associated with safety. Whether the placement of an Air Zimbabwe, to pick one, attests to exemplary levels of oversight and professionalism is arguable, and a mild caveat is due. Air Zimbabwe is a tiny outfit with, presently, four jets (two 737s and two 767s). Compare with American Airlines, with close to 800 ships and thousands of daily departures. Since 1980, American has outcrashed Air Zimbabwe 5-0 (including the Sept. 11 aircraft), but plainly the comparison is unfair.

Nonetheless, any unblemished legacy lasting 25 years is impressive, particularly when the setting is an underdeveloped nation with substandard facilities and infrastructure. On the cultural sensitivity front, it helps debunk the customary wisdom that Western carriers present far and away better odds than everybody else’s. And bear in mind that an exemption for even a single incident would expand the preceding list hugely, as would allowances for hijackings, hostile shoot-downs, or crashes involving fully or partly administered subsidiaries. A rundown of those with one fatal mishap since 1980 takes in, just for starters, Royal Air Maroc, Kenya Airways and Mexicana. Even the much maligned Air Afrique, the West African collective that went bust a few years ago, listed but a single death — a lone passenger murdered by a hijacker — over a span of more than 30 years.

Airsafe, by the way, credits our old friend U-Land Airlines with having maintained a spotless register during its short-lived career. While they lasted, U-Land’s good fortunes stood as a testament either to the skills of its crews or to those of its passengers, depending how literally the airline took its name. Or else they were just lucky. In 2000, Taiwanese authorities preemptively shut U-Land down for various airworthiness violations.

What about safety as an attractive, moneymaking pitch? Why not an airline that trumpets its ways of keeping passengers safe? Why isn’t someone trying to be the Volvo of the skies?

As a rule, airlines in America do not use safety as a marketing tool. All employ the word in a vague and general fashion, but seldom with regard to specific programs, innovations or planes. To do so would be on one hand statistically manipulative, and on the other hand a potential form of market suicide, undercutting the presumption of air safety in general. Not to mention the humiliation a given carrier would endure should a disaster transpire.

For airline A to sell itself as safer than everyone else, there needs to be a presumption of danger aboard its competitors. This would entail some dubious statistical maneuvering. In the United States, approximately one of every 2.3 million commercial departures will be involved in some type of accident, whether minor or catastrophic. Distributing the data airline to airline, the odds do change, but only barely. Since the terror attacks of 2001, American Airlines has had one fatal accident; the other network carriers none. It would be shamelessly underhanded, if mathematically accurate, for United or Delta to promote themselves a better bet than American.

That’ll induce some snickering, and few of us require a primer on the ruthlessness of corporate advertising. But in this case there’s a risk factor that compels the airlines into a collective honesty. With casualties so rare, the statistical swing from a “safe” airline to a “dangerous” one hinges on select few events drawn from thousands, or even millions, of departures. Reputations can be lost through a single act of folly or stroke of lousy luck. Quite understandably, airlines have no desire to put their competitive eggs in such a precarious basket.

That one American Airlines crash was the infamous flight 587 near Kennedy airport in November 2001. A widely publicized controversy arose over the tail construction of the particular model involved, the Airbus A300-600. A front-page feature in USA Today revealed that the plane’s maker, Airbus Industrie, may have long known of potential defects in the tail’s composite architecture. Such revelations, at least in some other businesses, would be juicy plums for marketers. “Fly Northwest, A300-Free Service to 200 Cities.” That’s a caricature, but even though no other U.S. passenger carrier uses the A300, none went anywhere near the issue; they were sensibly loath to set up a tit-for-tat based exclusively on numerical minutiae, knowing that should a tragedy — or even two tragedies — befall the braggart, suddenly the tables would spin.

Furthermore, the moment any airline dares put safety into the mix, the issue loses its statistical context and becomes a play on passenger emotions. All airlines will suffer if an already nervous public begins to openly and increasingly contemplate its mortality while surfing Travelocity. No carrier, big or small and especially after Sept. 11, wants to go stoking this excitable fire. Flying is safe and a majority of people, including most fearful fliers, assent to this reality with little or no protest. That’s good enough for the airlines.

Having said all that, there are ways to play the game slyly. An airline is never faulted for boasting that its crews receive the best training possible; the preflight demo rambles imperatively on seat belts and oxygen masks; the captain reminds you that nothing is more important than the well-being of everybody onboard. But this is not a mass-market pitch. Protocol permits any airline to call itself safe. Just not safer.

One of the bullet points of a recent JetBlue advertising campaign is “New Planes.” The service lives of aircraft, as readers of these pages should know, extend for decades. In America, comparing crash records on the basis of old vs. new is no less specious than doing American vs. United. (Not only that, most fliers would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the refurbished cabin of a 30-year-old DC-9 and the interior of a factory fresh A320 like those at JetBlue.) Is the implication here one of safety? Perhaps “new” refers only to greater luggage space, clean carpets and a cutting-edge entertainment system. After all, who doesn’t like new? Should you take it a slightly different way, however, well, I’m betting JetBlue doesn’t mind that either. The suggestion is made coyly and noncommittally, if at all.

Just because an airline doesn’t showboat its safety initiatives doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Cynics will be eager to cite a seeming trail of greed and criminal negligence: airlines ruled culpable for certain crashes, maintenance practices occasionally found suspect, and so on. But I hasten to remind you how much a carrier stands to lose should one of its planes go down. To suggest that the industry, along with its federal overseers, is playing fast and loose with the lives of the traveling public is a terrible distortion.

Do the FAA and the airlines debate safety in terms of cost? Of course they do. A given upgrade is estimated to prevent this many accidents over this many years, saving this many lives and this many dollars. To some that sounds nefarious, but the ideal safety canon is one that evolves rationally and judiciously; an all-out push for total invulnerability would be astronomically expensive and result in a system only marginally improved from what already exists. Since the Airbus disaster three years ago, our only other black marks were two commuter turboprop crashes, in which 34 people were killed. Otherwise, over 1.5 billion Americans have taken to the skies and lived to tell about it. How many people are decidedly uncomfortable with those odds?

And bear in mind that the cost of every enhancement is passed along to the passenger. Already airfares are taxed and surcharged to cover post-Sept. 11 security changes, the efficacy of which are eminently arguable. Say you’ve booked a flight between San Francisco and New York, and assume that a given safety feature would add $2.50 to the price of your ticket. A fancy in-seat video system also adds $2.50. Which are you more willing to pay for: a cockpit gadget that adds a minuscule buffer to an already safe experience, or the chance to watch some cool movies and live television?

The practical answer, yes, is that you’d like to pay $5 and receive both. But remember, your fare already includes its dues for the existing layers of safety — for crew training, for maintenance, and for the long list of cockpit gizmos and doodads that make flying the most trusted and dependable means of mass travel.

I’m curious about the Kam Air 737 crash in Afghanistan earlier this month. My wife lost three colleagues on the flight, and we are still looking for answers. I know that the U.N. won’t allow staff to fly the airline, but why? I also know there are many dangers involved with flying into Kabul. Can the 737 land by instruments, and what are the risks in landing in a blizzard, as the doomed flight allegedly was attempting?

Kam Air, Afghan aviation’s first post-Taliban venture, began competing with the state-run Ariana in 2003. My earlier boostering of third-world carriers notwithstanding, and although Ariana’s record is unmarred since 1998, outside agencies have accused both airlines of safety and maintenance shortfalls. U.S. government workers and United Nations personnel are forbidden to patronize either one.

How, and if, any operational deficiencies came into play on Feb. 3 is for now — and possibly forever — unknown. The Kam Air flight, arriving from the Afghan city of Herat with 104 passengers and crew, abandoned its approach into Kabul amid a snowstorm and promptly disappeared. Two days later, the shattered remnants of the 737 were spotted atop the 11,000 foot peak of Chaperi, a mountain about 20 miles from the capital.

The aircraft was a 25-year-old 737-200. It had previously been in service with Nordair, a long defunct Canadian regional, and later with Costa Rica’s Lacsa. For photos of the Boeing in better days, see here and here. It was registered in Kyrgyzstan and leased to Kam Air through Phoenix Aviation, a company based in the United Arab Emirates. The captain was Russian. The first officer, a Siberia-born Canadian with family in Edmonton, had more than 20 years’ experience flying passenger jets. Any 737, even a graying one like Kam Air’s, has a full complement of bad weather equipment, usually including the capability for full-fledged autoland, providing runway and crew are respectively equipped, trained and qualified.

“The plane crashed in Kabul due to bad weather and not safety issues,” said a representative from Phoenix Aviation. “It was unfortunate but not our fault.” In truth, the risks of landing in a blizzard pertain less to the weather itself than to the airport’s instrument procedures, local topography, etc. Slick runways and gusty winds present a certain level of hazard by themselves, but as a rule snowstorms, strictly speaking, don’t cause planes to crash. A storm over Kabul is no different, really, than one over Boston, Berlin or Beijing. What’s different are the mountains, the navigational aids, and air traffic control protocols. Or lack thereof. Kabul’s airport sits at nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, hemmed by a ring of rocky, snowcapped summits. The lone bad-weather landing option is a non-precision instrument procedure requiring ceiling and visibility no worse than about 1,000 feet and three miles. With a blizzard in progress, one imagines conditions being considerably worse. Meanwhile, for the crew, reportedly low on fuel, things may have become urgent. Scant room for error and a pressing need to land are not a welcome combo.

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Do you have questions for Salon’s aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

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