Ask the pilot

With airplanes crashing everywhere, is it time to run away from the newest, cheapest carriers?



Patrick Smith
September 9, 2005 11:30PM (UTC)

It all began on Aug. 2, the day Air France flight 358 went wallowing into a ravine off the end of runway 24L in Toronto. This was followed in quick succession by the ditching of a Tunisian ATR-72 turboprop in the Mediterranean Sea; the inexplicable Helios Airways tragedy outside Athens; the apparent dual engine failure of an MD-80 over the Venezuelan jungle; the crash of a Peruvian jetliner near the Amazon city of Pucallpa; and now, on Monday, the fiery wreck of an Indonesian 737 on the island of Sumatra. And although we rarely address matters involving rotorcraft, it warrants mention that 14 people were killed on Aug. 10 when a commercial helicopter traveling from Tallinn, Estonia, to the Finnish capital of Helsinki plunged into the Baltic Sea. That's seven serious incidents and more than 330 fatalities in less than five weeks, representing one of civil aviation's worst-ever stretches.

As discussed in this space two weeks ago, this unusual accident spike, even with the newest additions from Peru and Indonesia, is just that, and unlikely to mean much over the long term.The International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations, reports that for every million flights, the chance of a crash is one-sixth what it was in 1980. That's notable in light of the rapid expansion of commercial flying in countries like India, China and Brazil. The number of worldwide takeoffs is presently increasing at a rate of about 10 per day, and while the raw number of casualties may indeed rise slightly in the years ahead, that total should signify little added danger when seen as a percentage of worldwide departures.

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Still, for those predisposed to flight-related anxieties, nothing could seem a more obvious justification for staying on the ground than the past month's headlines. "My phone has been ringing off the hook," says Tom Bunn, retired Pan Am captain and the president of SOAR, one of the nation's leading fear-of-flying workshops. From his office in Connecticut, Bunn has been fielding an onslaught of calls and e-mails from petrified passengers. But are heightened levels of worry really justified? And what exactly are the lessons here?

Looking at the accidents collectively, two things jump out. First, if not foremost, we notice that in four of the seven cases, many if not most of the occupants survived. All 309 passengers and crew escaped the burning Air France A340, albeit some of them, including the plane's first officer, were badly injured. Off the coast of Sicily, 23 of 39 people were rescued from the submerged ATR, as were more than half of those aboard the shattered 737 in Peru. On Sumatra, 16 of 117 made it to safety.

This flies in the face of conventional passenger wisdom. Ask your seatmate, face buried in the newspaper during the pre-takeoff safety spiel, why he or she refuses to pay attention, and the answer is typically along the lines of, Well, if anything happens we're all going to die anyway. Actually, you're probably not going to die. Most accidents are not full-blown catastrophes, and according to the National Transportation Safety Board, more than three-quarters of passengers involved in non-catastrophic events do survive. Additionally, those who mock the life vest demo should remember that ATR splashdown. The truth and fallacy of water landings has been one of Ask the Pilot's most venerably controversial topics, and now we have a fresh example of people making good use of their flotation devices.

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Otherwise, if these unfortunate events share a point worth bringing up, it's that none of them involved airlines from the United States, and only one -- Air France at Toronto -- involved anything close to what we'd consider a major carrier. We have Helios Airways, Tuninter, West Caribbean Airways, TANS and Mandala Airlines. (The helicopter operator was a Finnish company called Copterline.) What this means, or doesn't mean, depends on how worked up one chooses to get over small differences in comparative statistics.

My contention a few paragraphs ago, that an increase in the number of crashes is balanced by the growing number of flights, assumes a level worldwide playing field. Analyzing things more closely will show that flying in certain areas -- namely parts of Africa, Asia and South America -- is, and will continue to be, slightly more dangerous than flying in North America, Western Europe, and other regions with advanced aviation infrastructures.

Note the emphasis on "slightly." This column has, on numerous occasions, fought long and hard to debunk myths and misconceptions about smaller and/or foreign carriers, and readers are reminded that the distinction between a "safe" and a "dangerous" airline is at heart an academic one -- the difference of a single tragedy or two gauged over thousands, even millions, of departures. For background, you might wish to revisit Ask the Pilot's installment of Feb. 18, 2005, which includes a list of airlines that have gone fatality-free over the past 25 years.

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But for the record: Helios Airways, West Caribbean, TANS? Who are those companies? Air France is easy enough; the world's eighth-largest airline in terms of passenger volume, founded in 1933. But even I, a devout student of the industry's most obscure names, had trouble placing the rest of them.

Turns out Helios, headquartered on Cyprus, was formed about seven years ago (with a mailing address on Nietzsche Street, which can't be good for karma) and until the Athens debacle was operating a threesome of 737s. West Caribbean, which also commenced flying in 1998, hails from Medellin, Colombia, with a roster of about 15 turboprops and MD-80 twin-jets. The ATR that plunked into the Mediterranean was one of three possessed by Tuninter, subsidiary of Tunisair, the Tunisian national airline. The Peruvian 737 was flown by TANS, oldest of the bunch with a start-up date of 1964; it's administered by the military. Jakarta-based Mandala Airlines was founded in 1969 and flies about a dozen, mostly early '80s-vintage 737s.

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Where applicable, don't confuse these airlines with the larger and well-established flag carriers of their respective countries. Helios has nothing to do with Cyprus Airways (1947), while Tuninter is not the same as Tunisair (1948, with an impeccable safety record). Down in Colombia, West Caribbean has no relation to Avianca (1919, and the second-oldest airline in the world), and Indonesia's Mandala is not affiliated with the better-known Garuda (1949).

So, if these companies have one thing in common, it's that most of them are new. In some cases very new. That certainly got the attention of Tom Bunn, who views an airline's lack of experience as a serious red flag. In a mass mailing to his nervous subscribers, Bunn wrote as follows:

"Helios is a budget airline founded in 1999. I believe this accident will be shown the result of outrageous neglect of basic maintenance. West Caribbean was founded in December 1998. Again I believe this will be another poor maintenance situation, and pilot training and experience may also be a factor. These three crashes demonstrate the results of changes -- not for the better -- in the airline industry. These changes involve the formation of new airlines where costs are cut to the point that risk is increased dramatically."

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Bunn and I see eye to eye on a host of matters, but here we part company as he decides to play judge, jury and executioner all in one swoop. True, his assertions are qualified with the likes of "I believe" and "may also," but clearly he's taken enormous liberties with conjecture and personal hunch. There is, to this point, no convincing evidence that any of the crashes were the result of negligence, be it shoddy maintenance, substandard training or anything else. And although ongoing investigations may reveal otherwise in time, that alone should not be indicative of some pathological incompetence among a certain type of carrier, be it new, small, or lacking aircraft bearing American registrations.

Bunn calls the Helios and West Caribbean crashes "cost-cutting accidents" and advises that flyers patronize only "an established airline." He goes on to cite past instances of upstart carrier neglect right here at home, recalling Air Florida's plunge into the icy Potomac in 1982, and the 1996 ValuJet disaster outside Miami. "Do not fly these new, cut-rate airlines," he warns, "unless cost is more important to you than safety."

Bunn's argument hinges on large-versus-small/new-versus-old, rather than the slipperier American-versus-foreign, and panders to the long-standing suspicion that young, competitively aggressive airlines are apt to play fast and loose with safety. It's an assertion that appears on the surface to make sense, but it isn't bolstered by the record. In the United States, a 25-year look back, encompassing every upstart carrier since the industry was deregulated in 1979, from People Express to JetBlue, reveals only a handful of crashes subscribing to Bunn's template -- an accident rate roughly in proportion to overall market share. Globally, it's not much different.

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As for "cost-cutting accidents," find me an airline anywhere, of any size and history, that is not working hard to reduce costs. And to conclude that a "cut-rate" airline increases anybody's risk "dramatically" is dishonest. And what is a "cut-rate" airline anyway? Southwest would probably fit that bill by most folks' definition, yet it's also the only U.S. major not to have a suffered a fatality over the past three decades.

The tendency here is to make distinctions in an abstract, purely statistical sense rather than a practical one. For instance, go to AirSafe.com and have a look at AirTran, the low-cost newcomer formerly known as ValuJet. The airline has suffered only a single crash, but that metes out to a comparatively awful, dare we call it dramatic, fatal event rate (see AirSafe for the rate calculation method) of 5.88, because it's based on mere 170,000 departures. Take American Airlines on the other hand, with some 17 million flights and a score of 0.59. Without a meatier body of work, AirTran's numbers are relatively meaningless. Until then, however, the lack of a positive does not prove a negative. In a practical analysis, which is all the consumer really needs, we have plenty to work with: Here's AirTran with a hundred planes, making thousands of weekly flights, and only a single blemish marring its record. Would a careful audit of training, maintenance, and day-to-day operations determine that AirTran is, when hashed out to the third decimal place, a riskier bet than American, Delta or United? Possibly, but for reasonable intents and purposes they're all up to par.

None of this is meant to suggest that we rest on our laurels. Air safety is, and will remain, an evolving process. We learn, we improve. Meanwhile there are, and always have been, newer and smaller airlines that run highly professional, button-down operations up to the highest possible standards, both here and abroad. At the same time, some of the world's eldest and most respected carriers are occasionally guilty of deadly malpractice. Averaged out, it's essentially a level playing field, and asking which is the safest airline to fly is a bit like asking which is the best lottery to play. If you're wondering which criteria to employ, whether you're headed for Madison or Madagascar, stick with price, schedule and service.

Many people are more anxious about flying than ever. What they need at a time like this is rational and useful information, not rumor mongering, cavalier accusations and hyperbole. Recommending the avoidance of an entire league of airlines is a drastic and wrong course. In the end, the realities of air safety are no more indebted to maintenance budgets or corporate culture than to luck and human nature.

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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.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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