Why I Couldn’t Care Less About Airline Safety (Anymore… For Now…)

The past few years I’ve made an effort to review some unique airlines that some would consider to be off the beaten path. One of the questions I get constantly is whether I’m ever scared of flying on any of these airlines.

It’s an interesting question, and something my perspective has evolved on over time. So I thought that would be an interesting topic to address in this post. While I wrote a similar post over two years ago, my thoughts have even changed since then, which is why I wanted to write about it again.

I used to be terrified of flying

Before I get too deep into this, let me note that while I’ve been in love with airplanes since a young age, there was a period where I was terrified of flying. Every time we took off my palms would get sweaty and I’d take deep breaths. I’d think about all of the things that could possibly go wrong.

What if there’s an explosive in the cargo hold? What if one of the pilots is suicidal? What if some maintenance wasn’t done correctly, and that last screw holding a piece of the plane together finally comes loose? It’s easy to think about these things given the lack of control we have when flying.

In my case, my fear of flying started after an awful Royal Jordanian flight in 2013 where I thought I was going to die. I’ve flown millions and millions of miles, and to this day that’s the only flight where I actually thought we were in danger (I’ll never know if we really were).

It took me over six months before I was even remotely over my fear of flying.

I’m not not scared because I don’t think about things

I know that’s a lot of negatives, but I think it’s the best way to express how I feel. I’m not over my fear of flying because I’ve taken an “ignorance is bliss” approach, and just don’t think about things.

For example, whenever I fly a new airline or to a new airport, I look up the “accidents & incidents” page for the airport and/or airline, because I find it interesting.

I also have concerns about the practices at some airlines based on firsthand reports I’ve heard from pilots and other employees there, as well as the records that airlines have. I don’t want to name and shame here, but just to give a few examples:

  • There are some airlines where I have serious concerns about their maintenance practices
  • There are some airlines where I have serious concerns about their pilot training, pilot experience, and pilot fatigue
  • There are some airlines that have very bad safety records, though in some cases they’ve improved over time
  • Probably my biggest general concern is the mental health of pilots, and arguably that has led to at least a couple of the major air disasters we’ve seen in the past few years

Just to give one example of something that’s concerning, on James’ post about the lives of expat pilots in Asia, one reader left the following comment (and I know who this is, so can vouch for the credibility of it):

As someone who spent several months at the training center of a major Asian airline, I find most of the above points to be accurate and match my experience. I want to also share some of my thoughts/observations, in no particular order:
– The quality of pilots (much more so with regional carriers) can be extremely wacky. In my case I was flying with 2 trainees from a smaller company who were grossly unprepared, and even crashed in the sim during many of the exercises
– Money and class can indeed help with recruiting and/or medical exams
– The instructors I’ve worked with spoke little to no English. Foreign pilot trainings are conducted with the presence of a translator, who has little to no aviation background and often struggle to communicate too

So I truly believe there are plenty of airlines that don’t exactly use “best practices,” and frankly I’m shocked more things don’t happen.

Why I “couldn’t care less about airline safety”

So, having said all that, I’d fly just about any airline in the world without hesitation. Why don’t I care about airlines’ safety records? Because to me it seems silly to try and make judgment calls between airlines. When it comes down to statistics, even the less safe airlines in the world are safer than just about any other form of transportation.

I don’t do in-depth research as to the safety ratings of the car types that various Uber drivers are in, and similarly I don’t do that for airlines.

I simply hope for the best, and put my life in the hands of the pilots and whatever higher power, because anything else would just be silly, in my opinion. If I ever do die on a plane, then I just have really bad luck, and so be it. I died doing what I love (not to be grim here, but it is how I feel).

But if I actually wanted to overanalyze the safety record of every airline, I’d be left with very few airlines to fly.

That’s not to say that I won’t keep looking at safety records as I choose airlines, but they won’t change what I book. Though I will say that when I flew TAAG Angola earlier in the year, I couldn’t help but shriek a bit at the fact that the airline had to “write off” a third of their 737-200s. Ouch.

At least that’s how I’m feeling as of now. Who knows, maybe if I have another Royal Jordanian-esque experience my opinion will change again.

You want to know what actually concerns me? The abysmal job the TSA has done during tests, where they’ve consistently missed a vast majority of weapons. Unfortunately you’re subjected to their incompetence no matter which airline you fly out of the US.

I’m curious how you guys feel. Where and based on what do you draw the line when it comes to airline safety?

Comments

  1. Haha, very true statements and good points you’ve made. I’ve come to the conclusion that if I die on a plane, it was meant to be. But yeah, I’m mostly puzzled by the incompetence of the TSA in finding weapons.

  2. After reading this, I’m thinking of giving China Airlines a try despite their (awful) past safety record… thanks for inspiration lucky!

  3. Since you are willing to fly any airline, ease review Allegiant and Air Koryo for us! I’ve got kids. I can’t risk my life…..

  4. People that exhibit risky behavior in other parts of life need to be punched in the face if they make a big deal about risk.

    Don’t drink and drive, don’t have one night stands at gay bars, don’t vote for Republicans, don’t let people buy guns, don’t let rednecks inbreed, don’t let rapists become supreme court judges.

    Wait I went on a tangent there.

  5. I agree with you. I’ve flown Air Koryo and even Malaysia Airlines (in 2014 after both incidents) and was fine. Yes, friends discouraged me from doing so back then but I think with any frequent flyer, one has to accept it is possible for a plane to crash and better to die doing something you love.

  6. As a statistical matter, most people overestimate the likelihood of a rare event happening to them, so it is important to keep in mind how truly rare flying incidents are. As such, I also think it’s important to remember what good safety procedures are for: if something bad happens, you will die on an airline with sloppy training. Sure, when you’re talking about infinitesimal risks, it’s a valid strategy to simply ignore whether one airline is 10x more likely to kill you than another. Personally, there are airlines I would never consider flying because of safety concerns. But then, I’m not in the business of reviewing obscure airlines 🙂

  7. Never had the fear of flying but a few weeks ago i had it. Was doing a LH flight on a CRJ900 sitting in the exit row and i swear i heard ‘things’ creaking and my mind went straight to the Pilot episode of LOST where the plane divided into half. I’ve never been so awake in a flight my whole life!!!!
    Then we had some turbulence on what was a sunny afternoon so was rather unexpected.

    Otherwise, i never used to be bothered. I have a 13hr flight coming up in J and i’ll just booze it up in the lounge or not sleep at all the night before and just sleep once in the air.

  8. I don’t really have a fear of flying on big or smaller less know airlines. Have flown RJ, Ukrainian, Kenyan domestic etc recently.

    Doesn’t mean I’m not sometimes gripping the seats during turbulence, wondering how flying was a good idea.

    With how few accidents there are that occur I’m amazed we spend so much time on safety videos etc. flew from iad to Ord yday and thought “how many hours have I spent watching videos of how to slide out of my 737” knowing it was just never going to happen.

  9. As a career military flyer, now frequent commercial flyer for business there ARE a few airlines I’ll choose not to fly (one domestic, several foreign). I understand your reasoning, Lucky, but still will not play the odds with a few suspect (in my mind, at least) carriers.

  10. Interesting post. I was wondering what you felt about airline safety considering some of the airlines you fly and this post does a great job of answering that. I respect your fatalistic approach, but for those of us not so fatalistic, are there any safety red lines or best practice methods for choosing which airlines to avoid other than following anecdotes on pilot discussion boards? I’m curious if there is a safety rating system or a regulator that you particularly trust…

  11. All I can say is wow…you are a brave soul to put these thoughts in writing. I’m not religious, but something about saying that out loud would have me fearing I have tempted fate to strike me down.

  12. Totally agree with you on this one. The likelihood of an aviation incident is so incredibly low, that imo even if a carrier is 10x more unsafe than another, it’s still an odd I’m okay with.

    Funny story, I was recently sitting in the window seat of a Southwest flight. Looked out the window and noticed the paint on the left engine cowling seemed a little mismatched. So I looked up the tail number, and go figure, it was the accident aircraft from the Pensacola incident two years prior. Had a good laugh with my friend afterwards, but didn’t really bother me in the slightest

  13. I absolutely agree. I was also once afraid of flying as I had I similar experience to your royal Jordanian flight. Though now I’m more scared of the passengers than the pilots/airline/aircraft.

  14. An important thing you can do is to prepare yourself for an emergency. When you take a seat on a plane do you actually note the best path to an exit? Pretend the cabin is filled with smoke by closing your eyes and find the seat belt release. If you are in the exit row, do you look at how the exit door is opened which is different for each type of aircraft? As the Boy Scouts say – be prepared!

  15. 100% agree with your comments on the TSA as well as those “random” screenings at the gate… Yes, I’ve gotten through security and have been inside the security perimeter since I landed and yet, you’ve got to tear my carry-on apart because I could have picked up a bomb somewhere inside the airport…

  16. I just want to say that Debit is my hero. This blog is not what it used to be and I find some of the articles somewhat boring, but boy do I always look for that hilarious comment from Debit!

  17. When young, I had a fear of commercial flying. But after being commissioned as an Army Infantry officer, I figured in the air had to be safer than on the ground. After training as a helicopter gunship pilot, flying for a year in a combat zone, I had a much more relaxed feeling about flying in general. My liberal tendencies from college days changed too, leaving me as an enlightened gun-owning, Republican-voting, former Yankee living by choice in the deep South. Oh, and for those who still may have a fear of flying, I found that the alcohol served in business class on Qatar, Cathay Pacific, Air France and others is an excellent anxiety reliever.

  18. I have airlines and airports that are on my personal DNF list for various reasons. I generally never fear flying but must confess to having an edge of anxiety about suicidal pilots since the Malaysian Air and German Wings disasters. There seems to be a sick (excuse the pun) growing trend that when some bastard wants to end his sorry life, he decides to take a bunch of innocent people with him. Agree that this could happen anywhere – in a movie theater, the mall, on the freeway, etc, but I personally feel much more vulnerable in a commercial airplane.

  19. I’m with you. Walking down the street my odds are much higher so we’re putting our lives at risk every day. The odds are so small in an airplane, but it would be a hell of a way to go. And who knows, maybe you get a chance to be heroic.

  20. Let’s be honest. The TSA exists to protect one thing only: the profits of places like Hudson News, T.G.I.Friday and the like. No problem bringing live animals or weapons through, but you want to bring an apple or bottle of water? You may as well be a known companion of Al Queida.

  21. @Ben. I sympathize; we had a rejected take-off with significant damage in 1997. Totally terrified. I still have flashbacks.

  22. I largely agree, Lucky. Even though there are some airlines in developing parts of Africa and Asia that have very poor safety records, often road and rail travel in some developing countries is far more risky. Especially if you’re going to travel in developing countries, that’s always something to think of.

    In developed countries, I am just more cautious because usually there are lots of air carriers. While I statistically know that an Allegiant MD-80 hasn’t fallen out of the sky, I avoid them because I know they are older aircraft and that Allegiant even has pilots saying they cut corners on maintenance. I feel much more comfortable on their A320s, but given their customer service, prefer another airline altogether. If an Allegiant MD-80 is the only way home, I’d still get on one though.

  23. @Donna

    I would put Egyptair at the top of that list – definitely one, but possibly two cases.

    The reason they are the only mainline airline on my personal DNF list is that they have a track record of not investigating incidents openly.

  24. James’s review of “Asian” airlines, and several incidents from Emirates/Etihad have made me somewhat worried that the until-recently-general attitude of airlines to share openly all safety issues has changed.

    It is as though those airlines that suffered comparatively high rates of fatal incidents pre say 1990 have the sharing and openness embedded in their culture.
    Those airlines which have been set up / expanded hugely since about that time started with an environment where the aircraft were already much safer, and so don’t see the value in being open about incidents.

  25. I have been flying since the sixties when jet engines and planes in general were less safe.
    In 1977 I was on a BEA (thats what British airways called the European division, BOAC was the worldwide division), from Frankfurt to London.
    The tail jet blew on take off and we did an emergency landing. The main thing I remember is that unlike in re-enactments where the crew are calm our cabin crew were more panicky than the passengers, who admittedly were full of alcohol(you could drink on the ground, smoke in the plane and there was no security checks in those days). BOAC also had not so reliable VC-10 aircraft then. Both the VC-10 and Hawker-Siddely trident were British designed and built. A different era.

  26. @Debit, a good one!

    I flew RJ long distance and it was a very smooth ride vs. your experience.

    I think the weather is more important than the actual Airline. Most of the Planes go down in bad weather. But if you already bought a ticket, then you are committed to fly regardless of the weather or whether it is a Air France, Malaysian, Boeing or Airbus.

    But typically if an Airline had an accident, I typically wait couple of years to make sure they have plugged up the hole in their inspection, pilot training, system upgrades etc. etc…

    BTW, most of the TSA are really have a bad attitude and tries show their power over the passengers. They will shout, scream and make simple things complicated and puts stress on everyone around them..

  27. Ben,

    You don’t seem to be very analytical despite your decades of flying. The reality is that it only takes one accident to change someone’s life forever. Whenever there is a crash, even a matter of seconds can make a difference so if it is a person who has never flown before, they may not be able to easily recognize where the emergency exits are. More specifically, take the famous Ethiopian Airlines crash over a nearby beach area… many passengers had not been on an airplane before and they refused to follow the cabin crew’s instructions to not inflate their lifejackets whilst still inside the aircraft; unfortunately, many drowned and did not actually die from the crash itself.

    Pilots and cabin crews know that the likelihood of them ever encountering a serious situation is slim, but as safety professionals, they have to be ready and we all know that no matter what, some unfortunate crews will be tested.

    Have you forgotten that even American Airlines admitted not too long ago that the vast majority of their revenue comes from passengers who only fly them once a year? Just because you choose to uphold a rather cavalier attitude about safety doesn’t mean that it is the optimal thing to do.

  28. There are some experiences, like bungee jumping, where the element of risk is part of the fun. Flying isn’t one of them. Even if the risk is very low, I’m not going to enjoy a flight on an airine with dodgy aircraft or lax safety practices, so why take it if I don’t have to.

  29. I do feel somewhat uneasy when flying airlines that a) are from a developing country and b) are in financial trouble. It’s just not good if the pilot has to spend time on thinking whether he will have a job tomorrow or not.

  30. When I was younger (much younger) I trained for a private pilot’s license. The instructor spent almost 100% of the time talking about crashes. It took years to overcome the ingrained fear of flying as I was always analyzing the aircraft performance in flight.
    It didn’t help that a DC8 63L I was scheduled to fly on crashed and all perished.
    I now fly extensively with no real concern. Helps to be in J!
    In the last week we had my second aborted landing and go around landing in IST on TK. Pilot eventually indicated “aircraft on runway” which did nothing to reassure me about ATC at IST but at least the pilots were aware and saved our skins.
    The other fun was trying to land in a snowstorm at Courtney BC with minimum visibility. In IST we basically touched before going around. In Courtney we pulled up at minimum height for VFR landing. We succeeded on second try.

  31. Most airlines are back to paying lip service to the issue of safety. It’s a theater-borne exercise where they can show the documentation and the training, but in the real world, they will excoriate a captain/crew for going back to the gate because of a lack of de-icing fluid.

    The reasons for this are many but none are justifiable. The “leaders” in the airline, for lack of a better term, got their jobs via butt-kissing and their wives’ desire for them to be home more rather than out working. That’s pressure #1 which places people who cannot stand up to their wives in the dubious position of “leadership”.

    They then suck up to the power-structure and find a job where they are in the training department, teaching sims all day and hating that. This is where their lack of aircraft systems and regulations really comes out. And they hate to be told they’re wrong. Along those lines, they hate ground instructors because they have a pretty good gig and know more about the airplane than they do but don’t wear the coveted “My p___is is bigger than yours” wings.

    The higher “leadership” of the airline is beholden to the shareholders and get flamed every board meeting for any loss of revenue due to safety concerns. So they fold their hands and take it in the hindquarters and then leave the meeting and set about making everyone else’s lives miserable by being a dictator and ending up becoming a de-facto liar.

    They are proof that the airline job never ends up looking like the brochure and they set up the table for cronyism, politics and kingdom-building…largely run by enormous egos with petty personalities.

    Safety suffers in all aspects but…as long as no airplanes are dropped and nobody gets hurt or killed, they go about their business, probably knowing that they’re on borrowed time because, in their minds, whether they pay close attention to safety or not, when a plane goes down, their job is toast so…why worry about it? This lessez-faire attitude is clear to the people who work in training departments and ops.

    “Just get them through training; We have a pilot shortage; They’ll learn it on the line.”

    The increasing number of poorly trained pilots is augmenting the already large number who don’t know how to use the FMS, intercept an OPD or understand basic functions of certain aircraft systems. But….in their own words, “They can fly the hell out of that plane”.

    I liken it to the guy who had a really nice car but the climate control was always on full hot in the winter or full cold in the summer and he simply turned it on or off when the temperature got uncomfortable for him. When I showed him that there was an “auto” button that would basically do what he had been doing for two + years, he dismissed it as being “too busy and I don’t have time for all that”. And…he’s a 787 captain. That same guy probably doesn’t “have time for all that” to understand the difference between carbon-fiber brakes and regular bi-metallic ones and why that’s important. According to him, it’s likely that, “Them engineers…if they put it on the plane, they should make em work like the old ones so we don’t have to deal with the change!”

    And I trained hundreds of guys just like that, who can “fly the hell outta that plane” but do not have time to assess landing distances due to change in conditions or understand what a flow is or why an Airbus has both “alpha prot” and “alpha floor” because I could see their eyes glaze over and go to the poolside when explaining it…even to the guy who asked the question.

    I have much less faith in pilots now than I ever did when I was a newbie in the USAF with a professional pilot for a father. The utter arrogance and stupidity I’ve seen is enough to make your hand stand straight up….If I had any left.

    These are the guys who let you know they’re an airline pilot and their ego doesn’t fit into their hat.

    And they are increasing in number. Shortages of qualified pilots results in lowering the qualifying bar. Plus, they think they’ll get a stampede of retired airline guys to teach groundschool for them. ROFLMAO! What is happening, in fact, is that their ATP qualified ground instructors leave after their training period to GO FLY! They discover that the repetitive tasks in the classroom and fixed-based trainers are absolutely no fun at all and it’s WORK! I will submit that probably less than one tenth of one percent will stick around but, added to that, the ones I’ve seen, in spite of their 15,000 hours TT, are HORRIBLE instructors with no patience, no understanding of the learning process and no desire to repeat themselves over and over. All three of which are needed to teach anything, let alone part 121 ops.

    But…the airlines and the large pilot training centers want ATP-rated people to teach…likely due to the misconception that the NTSB or FAA “require” it. When in reality, the Colgan Air crash resulted in the edict from them that people involved in FLIGHT training (stick & rudder stuff, for those of you in Rio Linda) not “systems and procedures” training. But…you can’t tell that to higher-up/execs because they defer to “what everyone else is doing” (because they…”don’t have time for all that”.

    And so the industry COULD be doing much better if they re-thought the quals for their instructors and used the ATP pukes in the full-motion sims and let the ground instructors do what they do best which includes spotting bad habits and fixing them early, getting pilots into patterns of the job as newhires, reinforce good and excellent habits while being the “answer man” when they turn around and ask how it works.

    But….historically, this will take six to ten years for them to figure it out. I won’t fly anymore anyway…I’ll drive before I set foot on another cattle-car.

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