How Safe Is That Airline?

We don't think much about airline safety in this country. It's been more than a year and 11 million flights since the last fatal accident involving a major U.S. airline. But in other parts of the world airline safety isn't always a given. If you travel overseas you might find yourself flying an unfamiliar airline, or worse, a name you know because that airline made headline news with a horrific accident.

People ask me frequently if a particular airline is safe to fly and with the vast number of new airlines across the globe it is increasingly challenging to ascertain the safety practices and record of a specific airline. Airline safety information is accessible on the Internet from several official sources. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) maintains a list of countries that do not meet safety standards set forth by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). But this list applies only to countries with airlines that seek U.S. landing rights and it doesn't distinguish between safety practices of individual airlines.

The European Union (EU) maintains a list of banned airlines, but this list misses hundreds of airlines that don't aspire to serve the EU. As a condition of membership the International Air Transport Association (IATA) requires airlines to pass a safety audit. Currently 190 of IATA's 240 member airlines have successfully passed IATA's safety audit, but IATA excludes hundreds of airlines that only fly domestic routes including such giants as Southwest.

A new source, from iJet Intelligent Risk Systems, examines safety records and practices for many airlines excluded from the EU, FAA, and IATA lists. iJet's Worldcue Airline Monitor (WAM) has assembled a dossier on 354 airlines around the world including many smaller and domestic airlines. WAM continuously collects data about each airline and evaluates that airline against 14 criteria to compile a composite safety rating for each carrier.

WAM examines an airline's fleet composition and age; years of passenger operating experience; maintenance providers; capabilities and certifications; ownership and financial condition of the airline; customer service; alliances; codeshares and partnerships with other airlines; any aircraft groundings in the past two years; plus recent news about the airline. WAM also factors ICAO certification, IATA safety audit accreditation, and the EU list of banned airlines into the rating for each airline. Airlines are rated "preferred" or "non-preferred" based on their composite score. Currently 85 airlines comprise WAM's non-preferred airline list.

Of the 85 non-preferred airlines, four have been operating for less than two years. A new airline must have two years of passenger operating experience to qualify for a preferred rating even if it's passed a safety audit and has a flawless safety record. A new airline like Skybus, which launched in 2007, will have to wait another year to obtain preferred status. But WAM awarded Virgin America immediate preferred status because of its affiliation with the Virgin parent company.

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