Those dangerous foreign airlines?

We need to begin by acknowledging that there is virtually no such thing as a “dangerous” airline, anywhere. Some are safer than others, but even the least safe airline is still very safe.

The region of the world with the worst reputation by far is sub-Saharan Africa, where scores of small companies operate without anywhere near the oversight or resources of airlines in the west. But even here the statistics can be misleading. It’s important to make the distinction between mainline African carriers and lower-tier cargo and nonscheduled operators. Flying on South African Airways or Ethiopian Airlines, for example, which have perfectly respectable records, is not the same as flying aboard some ad-hoc Congolese cargo runner or a Guinean charter outfit. Africa’s “dangerous” airlines are not even airlines as most people think of them.

“Americans have no reason to be afraid of foreign carriers,” says Robert Booth of AvMan, an aviation consulting firm in Miami. “Plenty of these companies have cultures of safety that meet or exceed our own,” he points out.

That’s a sensible assessment, though some airlines have had a tough time shaking their bad reputations. Russia’s Aeroflot, for example. Once upon a time, measured in raw crash totals, Aeroflot had a comparatively poor record. On the face of it, anyway. Several asterisks were required, not the least of which was that Aeroflot, in its heydays, was a gigantic entity roughly the size of all U.S. airlines put together, and it engaged in all manner of far-flung operations to outposts as remote as Antarctica. During the 1990s, Aeroflot was splintered into dozens of independent carriers, one of which—still the largest, but nowhere near the heft of the original—inherited the Aeroflot name and identity. Based in Moscow, the Aeroflot that exists today operates about 120 aircraft and transports 14 million passengers annually. Since 1994, it has had only two serious accidents, one of them at the hands of a subsidiary.

Korean Air is another. In 1999, Korean was put under FAA sanction and had a code-sharing arrangement with Delta temporarily severed after an earlier string of fatal incidents. People still hold this against them, despite the Korean government’s ambitious overhaul of its entire air system, and despite a sterling critique by ICAO in 2008. It ranked Korea’s aviation safety standards, including its pilot training and maintenance, as the highest in the world, beating out more than a hundred other countries.

Frankly, in certain regions I’d be more comfortable with a local carrier that knows its territory and the quirks of flying there. One example I love to cite is Bolivia’s LAB—Lloyd Aereo Boliviano—the former national airline of the poorest country in South America. LAB is gone now, but from 1925 through 2008 it plied the treacherous peaks of the Andes in and out of La Paz, the planet’s most highly situated commercial airport. Since 1969, LAB suffered only two fatal crashes on scheduled passenger runs, killing a total of 36 people. This was not a mainstay airline making thousands of daily flights, but two crashes in thirty-four years amid jagged mountains and hazards of the high Altiplano was exemplary.

Or how about Ethiopian Airlines? Here is another impoverished country surrounded by rugged terrain. Yet the record of its national carrier, over seven decades of operations—three fatal events, one of them a hijacking—is exceptional. Ethiopian is one of the proudest, and arguably one of the safest airlines in the world.

Following is a list of airlines that have gone fatality-free for at least the past thirty years. All qualifying airlines have been in existence since at least 1980:

Air Berlin
Air Jamaica (now part of Caribbean Airlines)
Air Malta
Air Mauritius
Air Niugini (Papua New Guinea)
Air New Zealand
Air Portugal
Air Seychelles
Air Tanzania
Aer Lingus
All Nippon Airways
Austrian Airlines
Britannia Airways
Cathay Pacific
Cayman Airways
Hawaiian Airlines
Meridiana (Italy)
Monarch Airlines (UK)
Oman Air
Royal Brunei Airlines
Royal Jordanian
Thomsonfly (formerly Britannia Airways)
Tyrolean Airways (Austria)

Takeoff from Kumasi, Ghana, on an Antrak Air truboprop. Photo by author.

I chose 1980 to best account for the changeover period from older, first-generation jets and propliners to what most would consider modern fleets. Most of the companies listed have perfect records pre-dating that year. Several, including Air Jamaica, Oman Air, and Tunisair, have never recorded a fatality. Allowing for one fatal mishap since 1980 takes in, just for starters, Royal Air Maroc, TACA, and Yemenia. Even the much-maligned Air Afrique, a West African collective that went bust in 2001, listed but a single accident in over three-plus decades of flying. Ghana Airways, another African star until its demise in 2004, had an even cleaner record, marred by a single fatality in 1969.

Whether the fortunes of some of these carriers attest to exemplary levels of oversight and professionalism or merely to luck is somewhat open to argument. Royal Brunei Airlines, to pick one from the list above, is a tiny outfit with only a handful of aircraft. Compare to American Airlines, with hundreds of planes and thousands of daily departures. American has outcrashed Royal Brunei 5–0 since 1980, but plainly the comparison is lopsided. Nonetheless, any unblemished legacy lasting thirty years is impressive on its own accord, particularly when the setting is an underdeveloped nation with substandard facilities and infrastructure.

In America, the FAA, whose penchant for safety is outdone only by a fondness for annoying acronyms, has come up with the International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) program to judge standards of other countries, using criteria based on ICAO guidelines. Classifications are awarded to nations themselves and not to individual airlines. Category 1 status goes to those who meet the mark, and Category 2 to those who do not “provide safety oversight of air carrier operators in accordance with the minimum safety standards.” Because the categories pertain to countries and not specific companies, and because the restrictions apply unilaterally, IASA has its critics. Category 2 airlines can still operate to and from the United States, but may not add capacity. Yet reciprocal service is unaffected. Robert Booth finds the program’s logic flawed. “If a country’s oversight is supposedly inadequate, how come our airlines can fly there without penalty, but theirs can’t fly here?” Booth recommends a bilateral capacity freeze to level the field and encourage governments to meet better standards.

Airbus A330 of TAM Linhas Aéreas at Sao Paulo, Brazil.   Photo by author.

In 2005, the European Union began compiling its own airline blacklist. Renewed every three months, it bans select airlines from various countries, as well as all carriers from some of them, such as Congo, Benin, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, and Gabon. But importantly, the vast majority of the forbidden operators are airlines that a typical traveler wouldn’t ever fly on in the first place. They consist mainly of marginal cargo outfits, most of them based in West and Central Africa. To give you some idea, the highest profile names on the blacklist have belonged to Indonesia’s national carrier Garuda, North Korea’s Air Koryo, and Afghanistan’s Ariana. The latter is a company with a storied history going back more than fifty years, but for obvious reasons, it lacks the resources to currently meet European standards.


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