Airline Safety Update – Cause for Concern?

July 16, 2009

The Charleston Gazette, Chris Dorst / AP Photo

By Terry Smiljanich:

Three new airplane accidents in the past two weeks have many of us examining the safety records of major airlines and the planes they fly.

The topic was the focus of a recent Consumer Warning Network story, which turned out to be one of our most popular.

Talk about timing.  When our initial story posted, Southwest Airlines had the safest record among U.S. carriers, but there’s been a chink in the armor, or should we say a big hole blown into it.

Southwest Record Takes a Hit

Southwest made the news on July 14, when a hole opened up in one of its Boeing 737’s on a flight from Nashville to Baltimore, causing an emergency landing in Charleston. No one was injured, but the news reports pointed out that Southwest has an aging family of 737’s.

Among the major American airlines, the average age of Southwest’s fleet is 14 years, but 208 of its planes are older model 737’s with an average age of 18 years. Alaska Airlines and Continental Airlines have the newest fleets (7 and 9.6 years respectively).

As almost a foreboding premonition, back in March of this year Southwest was fined $7.5 million by the FAA for failure to perform mandatory inspections for – you guessed it – fuselage fatigue on its fleet. A doubling of the fine can still be imposed if Southwest fails to meet additional safety benchmarks involving maintenance inspections. Better inspections might have prevented the near catastrophe averted on the Baltimore flight.

Even so,  Southwest still has the best safety record involving fatal incidents, having experienced none in its 38 year history.

Yemeni Airlines Crash

On June 30, 2009, a Yemenia (the national airline of Yemen) Airbus 310-300 crashed just before landing in the Comoros Islands, killing 152 passengers and crew (a 12 year old girl survived). On July 15, a Caspian Airline Russian-made passenger jet (a Tupelov TU-154) crashed in Iran, killing 170 when its tail burst into flames shortly after takeoff from Tehran.

As pointed out in our previous article, the safest foreign airlines are British Airlines, SAS, Lufthansa, All Nippon Airlines and Air France, while the most dangerous are Turkish Airlines, Indian Airlines, and Aeromexico. China and Russia, however, do not provide accurate airline safety information, a cause for well-earned concern.

Iranian Airplane Crash

Iran also had a fatal incident in 2006 when another Tupelov TU-154 crashed during landing, killing 29 on an Iran Airtour flight.

Clearly, the air safety standards in some countries, notably Russia, the Middle East and Iran, are in sore need of improvement. Given U.S. and U.N. sanctions against Iran, that country has found it impossible to replace older planes with newer U.S. models.

When flying overseas, stay away from Iranian carriers. Generally, it seems best to stick to the main airlines, which offer better flight training and equipment. Russian-made Tupelov’s in particular have either poorly trained pilots, poor equipment, or both.

The Yemeni crash on June 30 involved an Airbus A310. In production from 1978 to 2007, this Airbus model has a very poor safety record, putting it among the worst passenger planes in current use. 217 planes, operated exclusively by smaller foreign airlines, are still flying.

The lessons to be learned today: Smaller foreign airlines are not as safe.  Older fleets are not reliable.  Still, America continues to lead the world in airline safety.