Airline Safety Records & Ratings: Should You Care?

Airline Safety Records & Ratings: Should You Care?

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As an aviation geek, I thought it would be interesting to discuss perception of airline safety. I’ll share how I feel, and then I’d love to hear what OMAAT readers think. Why do I bring this up?

  • Every so often we see airline safety rankings published, which often have questionable methodologies
  • Readers often ask if there are any airlines I’m afraid to fly, or if I consider safety ratings when booking airlines, as I’ve flown some unique airlines over the years
  • I have a non-avgeek acquaintance who messages me every time she’s about to book a flight and simply asks if the airline she’s about to book is safe, and I’m very tempted to send her this post 😉

I’ll share my thoughts, noting that my perspective on this has evolved over the years.

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 mention this because I don’t want to dismiss the fear of flying that some people have. I’ve been there, so I can relate to it, even if it is an irrational fear.

There was a period where I was scared of flying

I think about all the things that could go wrong

Further to the above point, I’m not over my fear of flying because I’ve taken an “ignorance is bliss” approach, and just don’t think about things. Quite to the contrary, as an avgeek I notice just about everything when flying, good and bad.

I’ll take it a step further — whenever I fly a new airline or to a new airport, I look up the “accidents & incidents” page for the airport or airline, because I find it interesting.

On the surface 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 safety records that airlines have. I don’t want to name and shame here, but just to give a few examples:

  • I have concerns about the maintenance practices at some airlines
  • I have concerns about pilot training, pilot experience, and pilot fatigue, at some airlines
  • I have concerns about the corporate cultures at some airlines, where pilots fear punishment if they report safety issues
  • Across the board I have concerns about pilot mental health, especially at airlines that don’t have a second person go into the cockpit when one pilot leaves
  • I have concerns about pilots being a bit rusty after returning to flying, since many were furloughed during the pandemic; similarly, with a pilot shortage looming, I wonder about the future of regional jet pilots
  • There are some airlines that have historically had very bad safety recordings, but they’ve improved considerably in recent years

I think most people would agree that these are all pretty legitimate, mainstream concerns. Never mind the reports in some countries of pilots flying with fake licenses, or that at some airlines hiring and promotions are based at least partly on who you know.

So while I think some airlines don’t use “best practices,” the industry overall is an incredible place when it comes to safety. The statistics show that you’re just about as safe in the air as on the ground, even if I’m (frankly) shocked that more things don’t happen. I continue to believe that flying is an absolute miracle.

A lot can go wrong when flying, but somehow things work out

Why I’m not worried about airline safety

Having said all of the above, 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 you look at the statistics, even the less safe airlines in the world are safer than so many other activities we engage in on a day-to-day basis,

When I get in an Uber or Lyft, I don’t do in-depth research as to the safety ratings or the car types that various drivers are in, even though that would arguably be more rational.

When I fly I simply hope for the best, and put my life in the hands of the pilots, mechanics, and whatever higher power, because anything else would just be silly, in my opinion. If I do die on a plane, then I just had 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 (simply because it interests me), but they won’t change what I book. Though I will say that when I flew TAAG Angola a few years back, I couldn’t help but shriek a bit at the fact that the airline had to “write off” a third of its Boeing 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.

TAAG Angola has a not-great safety record, but that didn’t stop me

Why airline safety rankings are useless

There are plenty of organizations out there that put out annual rankings about the world’s safest airlines, and I find the lists to be kind of puzzling. For example, JACDEC (the Jet Airline Crash Data Evaluation Center) recently published its rankings of the world’s safest airlines, and here are the top 10:

  1. Emirates
  2. KLM
  3. JetBlue
  4. Delta
  5. EasyJet
  6. Air Canada
  7. Southwest
  8. Sprit
  9. Ryanair
  10. Qatar

Personally I find the whole concept of these kinds of lists to be strange. How do you really rank safety among airlines that haven’t had a fatal accident in well over a decade? And I don’t want to say too much, but claiming that Emirates is the world’s safest airline is a real head-scratcher…

My point is simply to say that I wouldn’t put too much weight in these rankings, or make any decisions based on this. In other words, your takeaway shouldn’t be “well I guess I should fly JetBlue over American, because it’s a much safer airline.”

Emirates is apparently the world’s safest airline

Bottom line

Aviation is incredibly safe, and that’s a testament to the industry overall. Understandably many people are still scared of flying, because being hurled through the sky in a metal tube at 500 miles per hour without any control is kind of a miracle, if you ask me.

While I constantly consider risks when flying, that’s largely just because I’m interested in aviation. At the end of the day I’ll gladly fly with any airline, though. Even less safe airlines are significantly safer than most other forms of transportation.

And even for those who are more cautious shouldn’t be concerned when flying a vast majority of airlines. Whether it’s American, or Qantas, or Lufthansa, or Cathay Pacific, these airlines all have top notch safety records.

I’m curious how OMAAT readers feel about airline safety — is it something you think about, and does it factor into the airlines you choose to fly?

Conversations (16)
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  1. Wilhelm Guest

    Accidents normally happen when several factors combine. Pilot fatigue, inexperience, weather, human error or bad maintenance may not in itself cause the accident, but should they align the bovine excrement may hit the proverbial fan.

    A tired pilot gets the wrong instructions from ATC in foggy weather at an unfamiliar airport. A rested pilot might mitigate it, it might be a clear day, it’s their homebase or ATC might issue the correct instructions.

  2. Evan Guest

    For me, it's more about the quality of aviation authorities of the airline's home country. For example, several African countries are home bases for regional airlines (i.e. - Dallo Airlines, Lam Mozambique, etc.). I would be more hesitant to fly these local airlines because I question government oversight.

  3. Frank Guest

    Hey, Lucky:

    Love your website. I agree with you that safety rankings in the airline industry really don't make sense, for all the reasons you listed.

    Here are a few of my rules for international traveling. 1. Fly western legacy carriers, and pay the extra money. 2. Fly large carriers in wealthy nations in the middle east. 3. Fly large carrier Japanese, Singaporean, NZL, and Australian airlines in asia. 5. When you can't fly a...

    Hey, Lucky:

    Love your website. I agree with you that safety rankings in the airline industry really don't make sense, for all the reasons you listed.

    Here are a few of my rules for international traveling. 1. Fly western legacy carriers, and pay the extra money. 2. Fly large carriers in wealthy nations in the middle east. 3. Fly large carrier Japanese, Singaporean, NZL, and Australian airlines in asia. 5. When you can't fly a large carrier, take the train/bus/taxi.

    I travel a lot to "remote" countries, and I've turned around on the jetbridge/staircase when I've seen something wrong on the outside of the plane. (Cracks in the fuselage, chunks missing on the engine shroud, etc.) I've walked off a plane when I noticed one of the crew be high/drunk/acting strange. It was after these incidents I started looking at close calls, not necessarily crashes. What I found was, even the big carriers have close calls, but the smaller/poorer/remoter carriers don't address it, and larger carriers do.

    Just my 2 cents.

  4. Roundtree New Member

    This blog is great because you "name and shame" all the time--you regularly point out lousy food quality and customer service. Why not do the same with, for example, shoddy maintenance practices?

  5. Kent Guest

    No interest in the actual ratings, since I think they are irrelevant. However, what is the metric used to rank? Is it number of incidents per total man-hours flown or incidents per flight cycle or what? JetBlue maintains a much smaller fleet than AA. I would expect on the basis of probability then that JetBlue would have lower incident rates than AA. However, that absolute measure cannot be a method of measure. Of course, Delta...

    No interest in the actual ratings, since I think they are irrelevant. However, what is the metric used to rank? Is it number of incidents per total man-hours flown or incidents per flight cycle or what? JetBlue maintains a much smaller fleet than AA. I would expect on the basis of probability then that JetBlue would have lower incident rates than AA. However, that absolute measure cannot be a method of measure. Of course, Delta and some big fleet owners are also listed here, but just wondering about the metrics used. On the whole, these rankings are useless in my opinion.

  6. ConcordeBoy Diamond

    Well, certainly can't agree here. Plenty of airlines (and even some aircraft) on my NO FLY list, and all of them deservedly so.

    Not really missing out on anything, as most of them are remote to my location/needs anyway.

    I'm also not setting foot on anyone's 737MAX until it's had a few more years to prove itself.

  7. Eskimo Guest

    I vote BALTIA and Global Ghana as the two safest airline. They never even left the ground.

  8. David Griffin Guest

    This is a ridiculous article. When a airline has to put a westerner in the cockpit because of poor CRM or low time experience (which does make a difference in a Cat 3 landing in heavy weather) safety has too be questioned due and resolved.
    This article doesn’t tell people about all the start ups Lion air, Air Asia which hirer low time captains with 200 hour (Cessna ) copilots. Airbuses automation has made these aircraft capable of flying themselves (practically).

  9. Mike C Gold

    This is an interesting conversation to have. It's a long time since Rainman set inflight entertainment censors off, but the reality of whether there really was any risk differential between good and bad probably hasn't changed. Fatal accidents, even one fatality not just total loss of the aeroplane, are so rare that they might as well be random. Are there airlines I would choose not to fly? Yes, but probably more to do with a...

    This is an interesting conversation to have. It's a long time since Rainman set inflight entertainment censors off, but the reality of whether there really was any risk differential between good and bad probably hasn't changed. Fatal accidents, even one fatality not just total loss of the aeroplane, are so rare that they might as well be random. Are there airlines I would choose not to fly? Yes, but probably more to do with a casual approach to customer service (which may well correlate with a casual approach to operational matters).

    What gives me more confidence in an airline, not necessarily to the extent of changing booking preferences, is something like the published blow by blow account of the flight deck response to the QF catastrophic A380 engine failure on departure from Changi.

  10. Donna Diamond

    I have airlines that are on my personal Do Not Fly list. Most are there because of concerns with pilot quality, some due to age and maintenance of aircraft and a few due to airports they use. Before booking on an airline I’ve never used, I check them out as best I can.

  11. Joe Guest

    The EU banned carriers list is a good place to start, mostly from Africa and Asia: https://transport.ec.europa.eu/transport-themes/eu-air-safety-list_en

  12. Regis Guest

    I have always heard regionals are less safe than mainline because they hire inexperienced crews and otsource all their maintenance to lowest bidders. Is it true?

    1. David Griffin Guest

      Even the majors out source

  13. Steve Guest

    Most of those “world’s safest airline” articles and ratings are driven by a site named AirlineRatings which despite the impressive and authority-sounding name is a one-man blog from Perth Australia where the blogger is an aviation writer and “expert” who has a track record of naming airlines like Qatar, Air New Zealand and Qantas as the “world’ a best airlines” in other ratings in exchange for them advertising on his blog or in the case...

    Most of those “world’s safest airline” articles and ratings are driven by a site named AirlineRatings which despite the impressive and authority-sounding name is a one-man blog from Perth Australia where the blogger is an aviation writer and “expert” who has a track record of naming airlines like Qatar, Air New Zealand and Qantas as the “world’ a best airlines” in other ratings in exchange for them advertising on his blog or in the case of Qantas gifting him complimentary membership to Qantas’ Chairman’s Lounge VIP tier. This is all very well established in Aussie aviation circles!

  14. Donato Guest

    I have no interest in the top of the list. The bottom quartile is where it gets interesting and rational decisions can be made.

  15. DenB Diamond

    If you explained the rankings and the methodology analyzing airlines' safety ratings, most people wouldn't understand anyway. Certainly Ben's "Is this airline safe?" friend wouldn't. Personally I love watching "Air Crash Investigation" (seen every episode) and it only makes me more comfortable flying, not less so.

    Don't expect "average" people to engage in rational risk analysis. If they were capable of that, cosmetic and cleaning product marketing would die.

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DenB Diamond

If you explained the rankings and the methodology analyzing airlines' safety ratings, most people wouldn't understand anyway. Certainly Ben's "Is this airline safe?" friend wouldn't. Personally I love watching "Air Crash Investigation" (seen every episode) and it only makes me more comfortable flying, not less so. Don't expect "average" people to engage in rational risk analysis. If they were capable of that, cosmetic and cleaning product marketing would die.

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ConcordeBoy Diamond

Well, certainly can't agree here. Plenty of airlines (and even some aircraft) on my NO FLY list, and all of them deservedly so. Not really missing out on anything, as most of them are remote to my location/needs anyway. I'm also not setting foot on anyone's 737MAX until it's had a few more years to prove itself.

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Steve Guest

Most of those “world’s safest airline” articles and ratings are driven by a site named AirlineRatings which despite the impressive and authority-sounding name is a one-man blog from Perth Australia where the blogger is an aviation writer and “expert” who has a track record of naming airlines like Qatar, Air New Zealand and Qantas as the “world’ a best airlines” in other ratings in exchange for them advertising on his blog or in the case of Qantas gifting him complimentary membership to Qantas’ Chairman’s Lounge VIP tier. This is all very well established in Aussie aviation circles!

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