How Safe Are International Airlines?

Scott McCartney, Wall Street Jounal, December 11, 2009

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European and U.S. regulators evaluate aviation safety, and the airline industry itself has a world-wide safety-audit program, but it’s difficult for travelers to check airline safety when buying tickets. There’s no restaurant-inspector’s score posted on the airplane door or government crash-test star rating printed on your ticket.

That’s unfortunate, since interest in airline safety is high. It’s been a bad year for aviation fatalities, with more than 700 people killed in 16 crashes around the world so far in 2009. Many involved little-known airlines–some already on watch lists for safety concerns.

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The European Union evaluates airlines and their planes and publishes a “blacklist” of unacceptable carriers, most recently updated just two weeks ago. The EU blacklist is available on the Internet at http://ec.europa.eu/transport/air-ban/doc/list_en.pdf.

Be prepared, it’s long and complex: 233 airlines are completely banned, and eight are allowed to operate under restrictions and conditions. Though its focus started as an airline-by-airline evaluation, the EU has moved more toward building the blacklist on evaluations of entire countries–all airlines from 15 countries have a blanket ban from the EU, and are among the 233 cited.

Evaluating Countries

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration evaluates countries, not carriers. U.S. inspectors decide if a country’s aviation infrastructure is up to snuff by counting the number of inspectors watching over airlines, assessing air-traffic-control procedures and evaluating funding and legal authority of aviation regulators. {snip}

The FAA says 101 countries have been assessed; 79 have Category 1 status, meaning the U.S. believes the country meets international standards, and 22 fall into Category 2. Category 2 doesn’t mean airlines from that country are banned, only that any new service and airline passenger-sharing ties are frozen. That can have economic impact on a country and its airlines, and the threat of a Category 2 downgrade can prompt improvement.

India, for example, was notified it didn’t meet standards and was given time to make changes. Earlier this year, after India increased the number of airline inspectors and made other changes, the FAA declared India met the requirements to remain in Category 1.

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An FAA spokeswoman says its International Aviation Safety Assessments list, available at http://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/iasa/media/iasaws.xls, is “one tool a consumer can use to decide on air travel.”

There’s surprisingly little overlap between the FAA and EU lists. Airlines from Angola, Benin, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Liberia, Gabon, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Rwanda and Zambia are banned on the EU blacklist, but those countries aren’t evaluated at all by the FAA. Both EU and U.S. regulators share concerns on Congo, Indonesia and Swaziland. The FAA rates Zimbabwe, Israel, the Philippines, Serbia and Montenegro plus several Latin American and Caribbean nations, including Belize, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua, in Category 2, but not the EU.

Improvements in Safety

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The airline industry has come up with its own list of sorts, and it can be useful to travelers. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry’s world-wide trade group, began working on a standard auditing regimen nine years ago, and it has evolved into an extensive safety check now required of all airlines to be a member of IATA. Passing the audit became mandatory for membership earlier this year; 21 airlines didn’t and were removed.

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Guenther Matschnigg, the IATA’s senior vice president for safety, operations and infrastructure, said the requirements include things that make indisputable sense, such as enhanced ground-proximity warning devices in cockpits, which sound an alarm for pilots when flying toward a mountain or other hazard. Those devices, required for U.S. airlines, are only recommended by ICAO standards. To comply with air-transport-association requirements, several airlines had to install the warning devices.

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IATA says 330 airlines around the world have passed its audit. Of those, 230 are IATA members–another 100 airlines wanted to be certified even if not IATA members. U.S. and EU regulators accept IOSA certification to meet requirements that airlines funneling passengers to each other through code-sharing agreements audit each other for safety issues. And a few countries–Egypt is one–require IOSA certification for any airline flying there. The list is available at http://www.iata.org/ps/certification/iosa/Registry?Query=all.

Lower Accident Rates

IATA says certified airlines have a 30% to 40% lower accident rate than non-certified airlines. In 2008, for example, noncertified airlines have had a “hull-loss” rate–aircraft damaged beyond repair–of 0.81 per million flights, while certified airlines had a hull-loss rate of 0.52 per million flights, 36% lower.

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