Flying thousands of feet above Africa’s sun-baked savannas, emerald forests and primordial deserts is an exhilarating, otherworldly experience.
But it also can be perilous—Africa’s air safety record is among the worst in the world.
The crash of Kenya Airways Flight 507, which killed all 114 people on board, put a spotlight on air travel in a continent with vast expanses where radar coverage is sparse to nonexistent.
“Sometimes the danger is due to lack of quality personnel or the appropriate work isn’t being done, or there’s just wholesale disregard for safety,” said William Voss, president of the U.S.-based Flight Safety Foundation.
The poverty, war and corrupt governance that affect Africa as a whole also affect its air industry. With little government oversight, airlines let their standards slip, Voss said.
Aviation experts cautioned that it was the small, non-mainstream airlines that were the main source of problems in Africa. Major carriers like Kenya Airways, which last had an international crash in 2000, are considered safe.
“Despite their reputation, Africa’s main commercial carriers have a good safety record overall,” said Patrick Smith, a U.S.-based airline pilot and aviation expert. “What spoils it are these fly-by-night cargo carriers, many flying ancient Russian planes.”
Last year, the European Union had cited safety concerns in banning 92 airlines from its air space—most airlines from Africa. The major carriers here, including Kenya Airways, South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines, have good records and were not on the list.
The International Air Transport Association said in its 2006 safety report that out of every million planes taking off in Africa, 4.31 become “unusable as a result of an accident,” said Anthony Council, spokesman for Geneva-based IATA.
Only the Confederation of Independent States, which includes Russia and ex-Soviet republics, does worse, at 8.6, according to IATA, which regulates international air transport.
In 2005, Africa’s rate was 9.2. IATA credited much-needed infrastructure improvements and technology upgrades on the continent for the improvement.