The Worst Airlines in the World

Before you get on your next flight check out this list of airlines to avoid.

July 8, 2009 — -- Angry about your airline seat? Not enough legroom, not enough width, not enough comfort? Well, here's a solution: no seats at all.

Crazy? I think so. But Shanghai-based Spring Airlines is considering it. They figure by making planes standing room only they can squeeze 40 percent more passengers on board. Does this qualify Spring as one of the worst airlines in the world?

Not hardly.

The worst airlines are the ones that don't meet "essential safety levels."

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Before we go any farther, let me just state that the airline industry is both safe and reliable, okay?

I don't think twice about hopping aboard aircraft all over the world with my family and friends. But I am also acutely aware that there are over 700 commercial airlines worldwide with scheduled service in the Official Airline Guide (OAG) -- plus hundreds of local carriers -- and there are a few of these we should all undoubtedly steer clear of.

Many of those will appear on what has been dubbed the European Union's "blacklist" of airlines. It was first published in 2006 and is slated to be updated in a few weeks. The list bans carriers it deems "unsafe" from operating in European airspace. The list includes 17 airlines from the Kyrgyz Republic; 51 Indonesian airlines and 57 airlines from the Democratic Republic of Congo -- including the perhaps optimistically named, Safe Air Company.

A quick Google search provides many of examples of disasters involving blacklisted airlines: Last year, in the Congo, for instance, a jetliner attempting a take-off in Goma didn't make it, smashing instead into shops and houses in a commercial district, killing several people. The airline was operated by Hewa Bora -- which yes, has a spot on the EU's blacklist.

However, Yemenia Airways, the carrier in the crash that killed more than 150 people last week, is not on the blacklist; but the airline was slated for review, according to European Union Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani, who also is calling for an expansion of the EU list into a "global blacklist."

Don't mistake a blacklist for a "crash list." Blacklisted airlines don't necessarily have more fatal crashes -- it's about lack of oversight and the potential for problems. The EU considers its blacklisted airlines to be operating below "essential safety levels." In the United States, the FAA has a similar list that focuses on a country's (as opposed to an airline's) ability to adhere to international aviation standards for aircraft operations and maintenance. According to the FAA Web site, those that do not meet these international standards (including Bangladesh, Haiti, Honduras and more) "cannot initiate new service and are restricted to current levels of any existing service to the United States while corrective actions are underway."

But here's the catch: many airlines on the "don't fly" lists of both the E.U. and the U.S. only fly within their own nations or bordering countries, so blacklisting a country or airline that doesn't fly to yours is somewhat meaningless operationally. It does, however, provide wide-ranging travelers with a guide: do they want to fly an airline that may not follow international standards of training for crews or mechanics?

Of course, anyone who has flown regularly has a "worst airline" story about carriers that may or may not make any official "bad" list -- but everyone likes to vent.

Some of the best storytellers are foreign correspondents, who travel to all corners of the globe in often dicey circumstances. One of them, Michael J. Totten, posted an article on his blog earlier this year called, "The Worst Airline Company in the World" and it was all about a well-known European carrier that among other things, took a month to return a checked bag -- covered in mold.

Safety Tips for Flying

So what's a flier to do? Well, I would check the various lists and safety records of airlines (see the links above) -- and keeping up with the news doesn't hurt. But again, bad things can happen anytime, anywhere -- just as good things can (it's called, life) and all you can do is be as prepared as humanly possible.

What should you do when flying? Here are some tips:

Watch Your Alcohol Consumption: The more alert you are, the better you'll be able to respond to any emergency.

Keep Your Seatbelt On: Turbulence and other problems can come out of nowhere. Keep the belt on, even if the "buckle-up" sign is dark.

Keep Quiet and Listen: The crew may give important directions -- if you can't hear them, you won't know what to do.

Stay Calm: Easier said than done, I know, but keep it together to make an orderly exit from the plane if so directed -- panic slows everyone down.

Leave It All Behind: Anything you brought on board can be replaced, with the exception of yourself -- if you take the time to fumble for that laptop or grab that purse, you may lose everything.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.