05.23.10

America's Most Dangerous Airlines

With summer travel season upon us—and crashes in India and Libya in the headlines—The Daily Beast crunches the numbers for our second-annual rankings of the best and worst airline safety records.

For those who fear flying, a caveat before reading this: Mile-for-mile, airplane travel is the safest mode of transportation, and America arguably has the safest air traffic system in the world.

“A kid who goes to the airport today is more likely to grow up to be president than die on a flight he or she takes today,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Arnold Barnett, who studies airline safety. “The risk is on the order of one in 25 million.”

View Our Gallery of the Airlines With the Best—And Worst—Safety Records

Fatalities are exceedingly rare: The last fatal commercial airline crash was in 2009, when a Colgan Air flight operating with the Continental logo on its tail crashed outside Buffalo, killing 50. The last time a major carrier fell from the sky was in 2001, when an American Airlines flight crashed into a residential Queens neighborhood, killing 265.

That said, even though every major American airline has a track record to envy in most countries, there are differences worth noting for the 202 million global travelers who will fly a U.S.-based airline this summer (a 1 percent increase from 2009, according to the Air Transport Association). Incidents, and accidents, do happen.

Just last week, a United Airlines Boeing 757 flying from New York to Los Angeles was safely diverted to Washington, D.C. after a small fire was found in the cockpit 30 minutes after takeoff. In early April, passengers aboard a JetBlue flight leaving Newark bound for Fort Lauderdale noticed the cover of the left engine was loose and told the crew, which safely landed the plane back at Newark.

It’s clear from federal investigations that when air safety is compromised, which is not often, passengers and crew are much more likely to suffer contusions and broken bones than lose their lives.

“Those that do still happen tend to be random in the sense that lots is being done to prevent them,” says Dr. Todd Curtis, founder of airsafe.com and a former airplane safety engineer at Boeing.

Last year, The Daily Beast tried to determine which airlines have the best and worst records when it comes to accidents and incidents. Just in time for summer flying, we’ve repeated the exercise: We crunched the numbers from the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates the most severe safety events in the country. (Air carriers are required by law to report accidents, which involve damage or injury, and near-miss incidents to federal agencies.)

To get a fair snapshot, we looked at recent safety performance and medium-term safety performance from the 13 carriers with more than 10 million passengers in 2009. These include three regional carriers, whose flights are often marketed under the big boys (think the Colgan Air flight—sold under the Continental brand, with passenger safety on Colgan’s shoulders). We did not take into account any records more than five years old, to reflect and reward the current situation, rather than past sins.

The air carriers were ranked by the following categories, proportional to the number of flights they conducted, and the ranking for each category was summed to determine the best- and worst-performing airlines. First place means proportionally fewer incidents and accidents, 13th place means more.

• Incidents, 2009
• Accidents, 2009
• Incidents, 2005-2009
• Accidents, 2005-2009

Sometimes it’s impossible to pin down fault when a safety event occurs, but responsibility for, say, a twisted ankle or a broken rib from heavy turbulence ultimately falls on the air carrier (until personal-injury lawyers figure out a way to sue air currents). And past performance, as they say in the financial world, is no indication of future results.

But here’s one last curveball: Airlines with more mishaps and near-misses may, in fact, end up avoiding serious accidents down the road.

“I have found a negative correlation between involvement in nonfatal accidents and incidents and involvement in fatal events,” says MIT’s Barnett. “Airlines in the U.S. that had more of these minor events actually had fewer of the really serious ones.”

All airlines mentioned in this ranking were contacted, with two providing official comment. So who came out as the safest? And who turned in the worst performance? CLICK HERE for the results.

Reporting and research by Clark Merrefield, with additional research from Lauren Streib.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that a US Airways flight was diverted to Washington, D.C. It was a United Airlines Boeing 757.