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.
Of the 81 WAM non-preferred airlines operating for more than two years, the greatest number (23) are in the Asia-Pacific region, with seven of those airlines based in Indonesia, following a recent string of fatal accidents in that country. There are 19 non-preferred airlines in Africa, 14 in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States, and six each in the Middle East, South America, and Central America/Mexico. Only one airline in North America and one in Western Europe are on the non-preferred list and both of those airlines were grounded due to finances.
Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) is one of ten iJet customers currently using WAM to assess airline risk. ADM has operations in 60 countries on six continents, according to Mark Cheviron, Director of Security and Services. Using iJet's new product, "we can make informed decisions concerning which airlines we as a company – and more importantly, our employees – choose to travel with," says Cheviron.
ADM usually uses WAM twice per week to evaluate international trips. Because WAM can be tied to a corporation's travel booking tool, ADM also receives automatic notifications whenever an employee books a flight on a non-preferred airline.
Although WAM assigns preferred or non-preferred status to every airline, customers may review an airline's score on each individual criterion and make their own assessment. Cheviron says ADM doesn't necessarily exclude an airline if it fails to satisfy one of the many evaluation criteria. "We look at a number of factors in making that determination," he says. "What would concern us most is if an airline receives high risk ratings across a number of categories, as opposed to being weak in just one or two."
"If an airline is lacking in certifications, runs an older fleet and recently had some questionable changes in management, I think it would raise more flags than if the airline experienced a single incident in the past 10 years," says Cheviron.
If a traveler books a trip on a non-preferred airline, ADM's corporate travel team will research alternative travel options to fit the traveler's schedule and will work with the employee to adjust the itinerary as needed.
WAM is an add-on to iJet's Worldcue Travel Risk Management solution, which automatically relates global threats and incidents to travelers' itineraries to help them avoid potential difficulties, according to iJet's President, Bruce McIndoe. An annual subscription fee of $2,000 provides customers unlimited access to WAM, if they are already Worldcue Travel Risk Management subscribers.
"Prior to the new iJET service, we relied on a variety of data sources to compile information about questionable airlines," Cheviron told me.
Even with an extensive database of 354 airlines, WAM still doesn't cover all of the world's airlines. The Sabre Travel Network, used by many travel agencies, lists flight information for over 400 airlines. But iJet will add new airlines to WAM upon a customer's request.
Of course even the most extensive research is no guarantee against an accident on any airline – witness the recent accident of a British Airways Boeing 777 at London's Heathrow Airport. But it certainly feels better to be informed when flying to a far off land on an unknown airline.
Send David your feedback: David Grossman is a veteran business traveler and former airline industry executive. He writes a column every other week on topics of interest and concern to business travelers. E-mail him at email@example.com.