Ask the pilot

Will I be safer flying Qantas than any other airline? And what happens to pilots who screw up?

Published July 14, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Quick, what's the safest airline in the world?

If you're like most people, you probably think it's Qantas. The 86-year-old Australian icon, known for its striking kangaroo tails and koala bear TV commercials, is most famous for being the only major airline to have never had a crash. Its reputation was immortalized through an exchange in the 1988 movie "Rain Man," and there's even a Q-and-A snippet in my book that begins, "Is it true that Qantas, the Australian airline, has never suffered a fatal accident?" "Yes," I reply.

How to weasel out of this one? If by "yes" I actually mean "no," then my answer is correct. Or, um, er, it depends on your definition of "never."

There are more than a few airlines whose reputations, fairly or unfairly, precede them. In this regard, Qantas stands as a kind of anti-Aeroflot. Whereas many people's perceptions of Aeroflot involve vodka-swilling pilots at the controls of patched-together Cold War rust buckets, just as many, myself included, have fallen for the myth of the Immaculate Qantas. Perhaps understandably, Qantas itself makes few efforts to dispel this false history, and most of the accident data banks perpetuate the same misinformation. Let the record show that the history of Qantas is scarred by at least seven fatal incidents. And remind me to have the editors at Penguin repair that reference in time for the next printing.

Until then, there's an important caveat that allows a bit of breathing room: Each of those Qantas mishaps occurred during the airline's first four decades or so of operations, the last in 1951. Jets were introduced to the fleet in 1959, and the fatality-free streak has endured. (The closest Qantas has come to an all-out disaster was probably a runway overrun at Bangkok six years ago involving a 747 with more than 400 people on board. The jumbo jet was substantially damaged, but there were no deaths.) A 55-year run might not be an 86-year run, but it's certainly nothing to sneeze at. Either way, Qantas posts an impeccable résumé.

But so do many others. Depending how the data is parsed, arguments can be made that various other carriers are statistically safer, even with one or more crashes marring their records. For all its merits, Qantas is a relatively small carrier (126 ships as of 2006, according to Air Transport World), and a high percentage of its flying is medium or long haul. Accidents, infrequent as they are, tend to happen during arrival and departure phases of flight. Per plane, Qantas makes considerably fewer takeoffs and landings than most of its competitors. Others in this category include Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Emirates, all of whom, coincidentally or otherwise, boast similarly stellar, if not quite perfect safety records.

"Qantas," incidentally, is the name of a rare, winged Tasmanian marsupial known for its longevity. Either that, or it's an acronym for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services, founded in 1920.

So, if Qantas isn't the safest airline, which is? That's a question I'm hit with, in one form or another, rather consistently. "I need to get to Seattle," a fearful flier will pose. "Who should I take, Northwest or United?" Considering the rarity of crashes in general, engaging in these sorts of hyper-analyses is mostly a waste of time. You can drive yourself crazy poring over the fractions of a percentage that differentiate one carrier's fatality rates from another. If you feel more comfortable picking Northwest over United, or Lufthansa over Korean Air, go for it. Will you actually be safer? On some minuscule statistical level, possibly; on a practical level, not really. (This same line of reasoning extends to equally popular aircraft vs. aircraft debate. Which are more trustworthy, 737s or A320s?)

Virtually every established airline (and every certificated commercial plane) is "safe" by any useful definition, as examined in this space back in February 2005 -- initially here, and then in a follow-up that included Ask the Pilot's "Quarter-Century Safety Achievers," a list of nearly three dozen airlines from around the globe that have been crashless for a minimum of 25 years (now 26 years). I'll repeat the list for the benefit of new readers, and because, frankly, it's fascinating and deserves another look:

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, Cathay Pacific, Cayman Airways, Finnair, Hawaiian Airlines, Icelandair, Meridiana (Italy), Monarch Airlines (UK), Pluna (Uruguay), Royal Brunei, Royal Jordanian, Syrianair, TACA (a Central American collective headquartered in El Salvador), Tunisair, Tyrolean Airways (Austria).

Yes, and Qantas. (Certain small companies are omitted, and all qualifiers have been in existence since at least 1980.) Subtractions from the ranks since '05 include the now-defunct Ghana Airways, and our own Southwest Airlines. Last winter, a young boy was killed when a Southwest 737 slid off a runway at Chicago-Midway. For what it's worth, the boy was in a car, not in the plane.

Getting back to "Rain Man," here's that dialogue between Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman:

"All airlines have crashed at one time or another," Cruise says to Hoffman. "That doesn't mean that they are not safe."

"Qantas," responds Hoffman. "Qantas never crashed."

I love that exchange because it's Cruise's character, not Hoffman's, who makes the correct and valuable point.

And speaking of thespian-scientologists who know a thing or two about planes, including how to fly them, here's a shot of John Travolta and his beloved toy, his vintage Boeing 707, done up in commemorative Qantas colors for the airline's 85th anniversary. Travolta is qualified on the 747 as well, which Qantas trained him to fly. John, if you're out there, I've got an autographed book for you. Just don't mind the error on page 199.

Q: I'm curious to know what happens to airline pilots involved in mishaps? Do they get rewarded for saving a plane from disaster? And what of surviving pilots who are deemed at fault for an accident? What happens to their careers?

When a crew is heralded for valor, as it were, commendations typically come in the form of flattering letters from your bosses, handshakes at a banquet, and maybe a plaque. The Air Line Pilots Association, the industry's largest pilots union, gives out awards each year for outstanding airmanship. Most recently honored by the ALPA were the crew of a United Airlines 767 that faced a complete electrical failure in the middle of the night over South America, and the pilots of an American Eagle regional jet that suffered a dangerous control malfunction after takeoff. (These incidents, and the notion of pilot heroics in general, were discussed here last October.)

Not that there's anything wrong with a nice shiny plaque and a free buffet, to say nothing of the personal and professional satisfaction that comes from having performed well under pressure, but no, you don't get a promotion or, necessarily, extra pay. You might earn some congratulatory time off, but nothing, not even saving the lives of 500 people, trumps the seniority system.

It's the other kind of time off a pilot hopes to avoid. Crush a taxiway light or otherwise find yourself culpable for a minor infraction, and having your wings clipped for a few days, a week or a month isn't unusual. Pilots are often protected from summary termination by contractual stipulations, but with certain violations, such as failing a drug or alcohol test, these may not apply.

In the case of a more serious accident in which a crew member is found all or partly at fault, the penalty can range anywhere from mandatory remedial training to being fired, depending on the outcome of any investigation. Until findings are official, a pilot is typically put on paid leave.

Then there's the issue of FAA certificate action. Independent of any punishment from an airline, the government agency can suspend or revoke a pilot certificate for any number of infractions. Especially feared is stricture 91.13 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, something of a conveniently malleable catch-all: "No person may operate an aircraft," it reads, "in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another." Even without a suspension, any administrative action against a pilot's license can be a huge, even fatal hindrance when seeking employment.

I don't know of any cases in the United States where pilots have faced civil action, as when a doctor is sued for malpractice. Attorneys realize it's the airlines, the manufacturers and even the FAA with the deep pockets, not individual employees. "And if the crew didn't survive," points out an ALPA source, "it'd be problematic for the plaintiff attorney to convince a jury to confiscate a dead pilot's kids' trust funds and lunch money. Why bother? That's a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions that they can and do get from faceless entities and corporations."

"Pilot error," cited in roughly half of all commercial airplane accidents, is a vague, frequently misleading summation, but in some countries pilots have been arrested and put on criminal trial for their professional mistakes. One prominent case involved manslaughter charges brought against the captain of a de Havilland Dash 8 that crashed in New Zealand in 1995. He was eventually acquitted, but snarling the New Zealand affair was a controversial court order allowing cockpit voice recordings into the courtroom as evidence, something vociferously opposed by pilot groups worldwide. There's an assumed, if not bulletproof legal understanding that CVR tapes are to be heard only by safety investigators to help determine cause. In 2000, three pilots of a Singapore Airlines 747 were taken into police custody in Taiwan after a crash (the carrier's only black mark in its 34-year history) at Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek airport. The crew had lost its bearings while taxiing on a dark, rain-swept tarmac, and commenced takeoff on a closed runway full of construction equipment. The pilots were forced to remain in Taiwan for two months, facing up to five years in prison on charges of "professional negligence." Crews in Italy and Greece have dealt with similar situations. In 2001, a Japanese crew was interrogated by law enforcement after taking evasive action to avoid an in-flight collision with another aircraft. Several people were injured during the maneuver, and police officers were sent to the cockpit after landing. In 2002, the Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation put out a press release voicing its opposition to such tactics. "This is a major safety issue that involves interference with accident investigations and the possibly unwarranted prosecution of pilots and other aviation professionals," read part of the group's statement.

"Fortunately, in the U.S. and many other nations," says an ALPA representative, "the emphasis is on getting to the root causes of accidents and fixing the problem, which means that the threat of criminal charges is counterproductive. However, it doesn't work that way in all countries, and that includes industrialized democracies where you'd think they'd know better. Pilots, controllers and even company officials can do hard time for an inadvertent error that doesn't come close to our definitions of criminal negligence. You can imagine what a chilling effect that has on the accident investigation process."

Q: Recently I flew Royal Air Maroc from Casablanca to Oujda, in Morocco. I was struck by the takeoff angle of the plane, which felt significantly steeper (and faster) than what I normally experience in the U.S. I'm presuming that there are varying regulations regarding takeoff angle and speeds between America and Morocco?

Speed restrictions can vary from country to country and region to region, and proscribed departure profiles (angles of climb, preferred thrust settings, etc.) can vary slightly from airline to airline. But the differences aren't radical, and that's not the issue here. What you experienced was, in all likelihood, owed to some combination of weather, takeoff weight, and possibly local noise-abatement procedures. Airplanes will climb more rapidly -- though not necessarily at a more nose-up angle -- in cooler weather and if lightly laden, while noise abatement rules often call for a sharper than normal ascent. There are very few cultural differences, if you will, contrary to popular belief, in the way commercial airliners are flown.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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