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08.23.09

How Safe Is Your Airline?

The Daily Beast crunches the numbers to rank the best and worst safety records. Plus, which seats and parts of the flight are the most perilous.

An American Airlines jet overran a runway in Jamaica on Tuesday night, injuring 91 people on board. The Daily Beast crunches the numbers to rank the best and worst safety records based on flight accidents and incidents. Plus, which seats and parts of the flight are the most perilous.

Almost 11 years ago, somewhere over Canada, a small fire began in the ceiling of Swissair Flight 111 near the cockpit’s rear wall. Seventeen minutes after the crew determined the fire was a serious problem and radioed a distress message, the plane plummeted into the ocean, disintegrating and immediately killing all 229 on board. In my then-role as host of a coast-to-coast public-radio travel show, I grabbed an interview with professional-pilot-turned-writer William Langewiesche, one of the most articulate people I know on the subject of flying and air safety. I asked Langewiesche what he says to friends who tell him they’re afraid of flying. I frankly expected the same reassuring words I often share with others, the how you’re more likely to be killed by a kick from a donkey than in an airplane crash. But Langewiesche surprised me.

On a typical American airline, your chances of dying on a flight are somewhere around one in 13 million.

“Who among us gets to choose when we’ll die?” he asked. So why be any more afraid of flying than we are of crossing a street? Good point. But with whom you fly matters. The Daily Beast compared the global statistics for the 25 airlines with the best safety records and those with the worst, and the differences are striking. The chances of you being on a flight with at least one fatality are 10 times greater in the loser bucket. And the chance of you yourself dying? Twelve times greater.

Clive Irving: What Went Right in the Jamaica Crash

The Best and Worst Airports
The difference within the U.S., which has uniformly far safer standards, is far less. But I thought I’d quantify that. I present The Daily Beast Safety Rankings of domestic airlines, a list designed to showcase which carriers are performing best—and which lag—in terms of keeping travelers out of Langewiesche’s musings. Crunching data compiled by airline-safety-records.com, which for years has been constantly updating its records based on information it amalgamates from the Federal Aviation Administration, National Transportation Safety Board, and the U.S. Department of Transportation, The Daily Beast's rankings encompass two equal criteria: accidents (you know what those are) and as well as “incidents,” which means a stomach-churning event that could have gone very badly (a near-miss in midair, a runway incursion, loss of engine power, etc.). From there, I evenly weighted one-year (for 2008) and five-year safety records, thus rewarding both those who consistently run smoothly and those who have stepped up their game.

To further compare apples to apples, we also separated the national carriers from those that are more regional. To adjust for the fact that big airlines fly more frequently than smaller ones, the incidents and accidents were tallied on per-million take-offs basis. (Note also that some of the NTSB and FAA data are self-reported by airlines, though the reporting is governed by federal regulations.) The Daily Beast rankings for 10 big boys came out, from best to worst, as follows:

aviation---slide-1

1. AirTran
2. JetBlue
3. Southwest
4. US Airways
5. American
6. Alaska
7. Continental
8. Delta
9. Northwest
10. United

"It has been a great five years for us in which our continual dedication to safety has paid off,” says Christopher White, a spokesman for AirTran. "Our 8,500 crew members make safety their No. 1 priority every day." United, meanwhile, questioned how airlinesafetyrecords.com weighs its data. “It is difficult for us to comment on these figures because we do not know the methodology behind them,” says a spokesperson.

The Daily Beast also ranked regional airlines, where the problems are far greater, with an accidents and incidents rate more than twice as high as the national carriers. “In the industry, one of the biggest concerns are the regional operators,” says Jim Asker, the managing editor of the trade magazine Aviation Week. Among those The Daily Beast measured, several smaller airlines had perfect safety records, while Midwest (based in Milwaukee and now a subsidiary of Republic Airlines, which has won an auction to acquire Frontier Airlines) had the worst.

Click Image Below to View The Daily Beast's Airline Survey Statistics

aviation-gallery-launch

Sorting through the data leads to all sorts of interesting factoids: Pilot errors have been getting fewer. The accident rate has been consistently lower than in the 1990s. Flying in a private jet is more than four times more dangerous than flying on a big carrier.

Then there’s location. “Where you are is more important than the model you’re in,” says Dr. Todd Curtis, the author of Understanding Aviation Safety Data and creator of AirSafe.com. The crash in June of a Yemenia Airbus A310 (a model no longer in production, by the way) might lead a reasonable, risk-averse passenger to avoid airlines from developing countries. I often meet people who would never consider boarding a commercial jet flying the colors of, say, Air Zimbabwe, Air Tanzania, or Tunisair. In fact, none of those airlines (and dozens more) have lost a passenger in an accident for more than two decades. Moral: It’s not major national airlines you should avoid—it’s the regional carriers in poor countries where maintenance and training might not be up to par.

Then there’s the question of whether there’s a “safest seat” in any passenger airplane. The answer is, generally, it’s a crapshoot. Both Boeing and the FAA have said there’s no way to say for sure whether you’re safer in a crash if you take a seat up front, over the wings, or in the back. However, Popular Mechanics magazine examined raw data from the NTSB covering the 20 airline crashes in the U.S. from 1971 to 2006 that had both fatalities and survivors. The editors’ conclusion: Passengers seated near the tail of the plane have a 40 percent better chance of surviving a crash than those in the first few rows.

And while you may be able to choose your seat on a flight, there’s not much you can do about this fact: The most dangerous time in a flight is the landing. “That’s what pilots really get paid to do: Bring it back to the ground,” says Michael Barr of the University of Southern California’s aviation safety program and a former Air Force fighter pilot in Vietnam. That said, your chances of walking away are far greater from a landing; the chances of dying on any flight are far greater during the takeoff and climb.

It can’t be overemphasized how remote this possibility is. On a typical American airline, your chances of dying on a flight are somewhere around one in 13 million. (Remember that donkey kick I mentioned?) In fact, the last several years have been an unusually safe time to fly commercially, though 2009 has seen a statistically surprising number of disasters, including two crashes in Iran, the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, New York, a Turkish Airlines flight near Amsterdam, the Air France flight from Rio to Paris, and the Yemenia flight in the Indian Ocean.

There’s a glimmer of good news regarding survivability in all that bad news, however. In the case of the Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 that crashed short of the runway while descending for landing at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, 126 of the 135 people on board survived. And then, of course, there’s the miracle landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, proving that even if it appears that fate has chosen you, in an aircraft that’s lost all its engines, sometimes you can cheat death.

Rudy Maxa, a longtime consumer travel commentator, is host and executive producer of “Rudy Maxa’s World,” on public television and a contributing editor with National Geographic Traveler.