Airline Safety – Is Southwest Airlines Still the Safest?

April 5, 2011

By Terry Smiljanich:

Here’s a strange turn of events.  Southwest Airlines has had the distinction of being rated the safest major airline in the world,  as we’ve reported here on Consumer Warning Network.  That rating was based on the number of fatal crashes it has experienced since 1970, i.e., no such crashes. But given the recent news regarding fatigue cracks in its aging air fleet, resulting in a portion of a plane’s roof coming off and reports of further cracks in similar Boeing 737’s, should it still be regarded as safe, much less the safest?

I believe the answer is yes. Aging air fleets are a problem for all major airlines, and Southwest does not stand alone in this regard. This is not the first time a passenger plane in flight has suffered a partial failure of its roof structure. In 1988, an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 suffered a similar fate. The failure was so sudden that a flight attendant was swept away to her death as a consequence.

Aging Fleets

Fatigue cracks in airplane structures can be minor and almost undetectable until it is too late. The FAA requires periodic inspections of all airplanes in service, including inspections for such cracks. In fact, the FAA is currently considering more stringent standards for such inspections. The current political rage to further deregulate the industry was threatening to put a halt to such new standards, but that could change now due to concerns exposed by the Southwest incident. The FAA has ordered inspections be done with an electro-magnetic process that detects cracks invisible to the naked eye.

Our aging airplane fleet has been a concern for several years. In 1991 Congress passed the Aging Aircraft Safety Act, requiring more frequent inspections of older airplanes. By 2006, the average age of American Airline planes was 14 years. The Boeing 737, which is the workhorse of the airline industry, was first manufactured in 1967, and some of its older planes are still flying.

Southwest states that its average fleet age is eleven years, but the 737’s are the oldest planes in its fleet, with an age ranging between 14 and 27 years.

Tougher Inspections

On April 4, 2011, following the Southwest incident, the FAA announced an industry-wide program of inspections of the older Boeing 737’s needed to be implemented. Transportation Secretary LaHood stated: “Last Friday’s incident was very serious and could result in additional action depending on the outcome of the investigation.”

The recent incident with the Southwest Airline flight is yet another warning that the industry must pay closer attention to the creeping age of its fleet. Southwest grounded several flights and is engaged in a stepped up program of inspecting its aircraft for signs of fatigue in the structures of its planes. Rather than further deregulation in this critical area, we should demand stricter standards from our airline industry.

Southwest’s reaction to this incident is to be commended, and yes, it still remains the only major airline with no fatalities. Interestingly, Aloha Airlines is also a very safe airline, with just that one fatality in 1988.

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.

New Information On Safest and Worst Domestic and Foreign Airlines

July 29, 2010

By Terry Smiljanich:

In the year since Consumer Warning Network ranked the world’s airlines on their safety record, the top airlines have retained their safety record, but the list of worst airlines in the world has changed considerably. On July 28, a Pakistani Air Blue flight from Karachi to Islamabad, crashed on approach and killed all 152 passengers and crew. Let’s take another look at the record.

The fatality records of the top eight airlines in the United States (those having more than 2 million flights per year) have not changed in a year. The number of fatal events per million miles traveled remains as follows:

  1. Southwest Airlines        0.00 (no fatalities in its history)
  2. Delta Airlines                 0.17
  3. Northwest Airlines       0.21
  4. Continental Airlines     0.24
  5. US Air                              0.28
  6. United Airlines              0.31
  7. Alaska Airlines              0.33
  8. American Airlines        0.40

Similarly, the top foreign airlines with more than 2 million flights per year remains the same as last year:

  1. British Airlines             0.17
  2. SAS                                 0.19
  3. Lufthansa                      0.22
  4. All Nippon Airlines     0.22
  5. Air France                     0.72

The worst commercial airlines in the world, based on fatalities, have a new cast of characters. The Hall of Shame is as follows:

  1. Cubana 18.53
  2. Air Zimbabwe 11.54
  3. Aero Peru 9.74
  4. Royal Jordanian 7.99
  5. Egypt Air 7.60
  6. TAM Brazil                           7.40
  7. China Airlines (Taiwan) 7.16
  8. Air India 4.89
  9. Pakistan Airlines 4.55
  10. Ethiopian Airlines 4.06

As last year, the People’s Republic of China still does not report airline fatality incidents, so it is not known where its safety record stands.

Thus, as we found last year, the major airlines have enviable safety records, while smaller national airlines of foreign countries generally have much poorer records.

That is not to say, however, that the major airlines are without dangerous incidents. A United Airlines flight on July 20, 2010, from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles encountered turbulence en route, injuring 26 passengers and 4 crew members. On July 27, 2010, a Lufthansa cargo flight crashed on landing and broke in two, although neither crew member was injured.

All in all, however, it remains true that the most dangerous part of air travel is the drive to the airport.

Which Airplanes and Airlines are the Safest?

July 10, 2009

Air France Tail SectionBy Terry Smiljanich:

The June 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447 in Brazil, killing 228 passengers and crew, renewed questions about airline safety in many people’s minds.  On October 14, the FAA proposed fines of $9.2 million against domestic carriers US Airways and United Airlines for operating planes that violated FAA and company maintenance requirements.

How safe is flying? Which airlines have the best track record? What airplane models have fewer fatal crashes? [For an update to this story as of August, 2010, please read our new posting].

Flying safety

Last year alone, U.S. airline passengers traveled 798 billion miles. During the same period, Americans traveled about 3 trillion miles in automobiles. Using comparative figures, it has been calculated that the chances of a fatality in driving between Boston and Washington, D.C., is 8.5 times greater than the chances of an airline fatality for that same trip. So there is no question that airline safety still beats driving risks by miles.

Statistics show that on average in the U.S. a person dies in a plane crash for every 4 million flights taken.  These are the kind of odds faced in winning the lottery with a single ticket. You are more likely to die from stumbling while walking, an accidental firearms discharge, or suffocating in bed while sleeping than from perishing in a plane crash.

Which Airlines Have the Best Safety Record?

The top eight airlines in the United States (those having more than 2 million flights per year) all have good safety records. Their rank, based on the number of fatal events per million miles traveled, is as follows:

  1. Southwest Airlines           0.00 (no fatalities in its history)
  2. Delta Airlines                   0.17
  3. Northwest Airlines           0.21
  4. Continental Airlines         0.24
  5. US Air                              0.28
  6. United Airlines                 0.31
  7. Alaska Airlines                 0.33
  8. American Airlines             0.40

This is an average of 0.24 fatal events per million flights.

How does that compare to the airlines of other countries? The sixteen airlines based in other countries with flights exceeding 2 million per year average 1.10 fatal events per million flights, or more than four times worse than the U.S. average. The top 5 safest foreign airlines are:

  1. British Airlines                 0.17
  2. SAS                                 0.19
  3. Lufthansa                        0.22
  4. All Nippon Airlines          0.22
  5. Air France                       0.72 (not including the 6/1/09 crash)

The foreign airlines with the worst fatality records are:

  1. Turkish Airlines               3.60
  2. Indian Airlines                 3.53
  3. Aeromexico                     1.76
  4. Japan Airlines                  1.36
  5. SwissAir                          1.20

It should be noted that the official airline of China, Air China, does not release mileage or accident statistics. It is a good bet that if China does not want the world to know the answers to these questions, it must not like the answers.

There is no doubt that the American airline industry is on average the safest in the world.

What Airplanes Have the Best Safety Records

The top 5 airplanes currently in production and flown in more than 10 million flights per year rank as follows:

  1. Airbus A320                     0.13
  2. ATR 42/72                       0.33
  3. Boeing 737                      0.36
  4. Boeing 767                      0.40
  5. Boeing 747                      0.76

Other airplanes no longer in production but still flying include the Boeing MD80/90 (0.26), the Boeing 757 (0.30), the Boeing 727 (0.49) and the Airbus 300 (0.54).

What about the Airbus A330 involved in the Air France disaster? This airplane came into production in the late 90’s. 1,021 planes have been ordered, but only 609 have actually been delivered.

Compared to the Airbus A320 (6,321 ordered, 3,893 delivered), comparatively few of the A330 planes are in the air. The fatality statistics kept on this plane are currently unavailable, perhaps due to the lack of a sufficient track record, but the Air France crash will obviously push this model nearly to the top of the list.

This might be considered an unfair comparison, since only one accident can seriously skew the statistics. Take the Concorde SST, the supersonic airline in operation from 1976 to 2003. It only had one fatal accident in its entire history, but because it flew less than 100,000 flights total, its fatal events per million flights is 11.36, the highest of any aircraft model.

It could be argued that statistics such as these are misleading, since so few airline crashes occur, making them susceptible to the vagaries of chance occurences. What can be gleaned from these statistics, however, is that the major airplane models in current use have good track records, and that the air safety regulations in a few other countries are suspect.

Which Airplanes and Airlines are the Safest?

June 9, 2009

Air France Tail SectionBy Terry Smiljanich:

The crash of Air France Flight 447 in Brazil in 2009, killing 228 passengers and crew, has renewed questions about airline safety in many people’s minds.

How safe is flying? Which airlines have the best track record? What airplane models have fewer fatal crashes? [For an update as of August, 2010, please see our more recent story on the same subject.]

Flying safety

Last year alone, U.S. airline passengers traveled 798 billion miles. During the same period, Americans traveled about 3 trillion miles in automobiles. Using comparative figures, it has been calculated that the chances of a fatality in driving between Boston and Washington, D.C., is 8.5 times greater than the chances of an airline fatality for that same trip. So there is no question that airline safety still beats driving risks by miles.

Statistics show that on average in the U.S. a person dies in a plane crash for every 4 million flights taken.  These are the kind of odds faced in winning the lottery with a single ticket. You are more likely to die from stumbling while walking, an accidental firearms discharge, or suffocating in bed while sleeping than from perishing in a plane crash.

Which Airlines Have the Best Safety Record?

The top eight airlines in the United States (those having more than 2 million flights per year) all have good safety records. Their rank, based on the number of fatal events per million miles traveled, is as follows:

  1. Southwest Airlines           0.00 (no fatalities in its history)
  2. Delta Airlines                   0.17
  3. Northwest Airlines           0.21
  4. Continental Airlines         0.24
  5. US Air                              0.28
  6. United Airlines                 0.31
  7. Alaska Airlines                 0.33
  8. American Airlines             0.40

This is an average of 0.24 fatal events per million flights.

How does that compare to the airlines of other countries? The sixteen airlines based in other countries with flights exceeding 2 million per year average 1.10 fatal events per million flights, or more than four times worse than the U.S. average. The top 5 safest foreign airlines are:

  1. British Airlines                 0.17
  2. SAS                                 0.19
  3. Lufthansa                        0.22
  4. All Nippon Airlines          0.22
  5. Air France                       0.72 (not including the 6/1/09 crash)

The foreign airlines with the worst fatality records are:

  1. Turkish Airlines               3.60
  2. Indian Airlines                 3.53
  3. Aeromexico                     1.76
  4. Japan Airlines                  1.36
  5. SwissAir                          1.20

It should be noted that the official airline of China, Air China, does not release mileage or accident statistics. It is a good bet that if China does not want the world to know the answers to these questions, it must not like the answers.

There is no doubt that the American airline industry is on average the safest in the world.

What Airplanes Have the Best Safety Records

The top 5 airplanes currently in production and flown in more than 10 million flights per year rank as follows:

  1. Airbus A320                     0.13
  2. ATR 42/72                       0.33
  3. Boeing 737                      0.36
  4. Boeing 767                      0.40
  5. Boeing 747                      0.76

Other airplanes no longer in production but still flying include the Boeing MD80/90 (0.26), the Boeing 757 (0.30), the Boeing 727 (0.49) and the Airbus 300 (0.54).

What about the Airbus A330 involved in the Air France disaster? This airplane came into production in the late 90’s. 1,021 planes have been ordered, but only 609 have actually been delivered.

Compared to the Airbus A320 (6,321 ordered, 3,893 delivered), comparatively few of the A330 planes are in the air. The fatality statistics kept on this plane are currently unavailable, perhaps due to the lack of a sufficient track record, but the Air France crash will obviously push this model nearly to the top of the list.

This might be considered an unfair comparison, since only one accident can seriously skew the statistics. Take the Concorde SST, the supersonic airline in operation from 1976 to 2003. It only had one fatal accident in its entire history, but because it flew less than 100,000 flights total, its fatal events per million flights is 11.36, the highest of any aircraft model.

It could be argued that statistics such as these are misleading, since so few airline crashes occur, making them susceptible to the vagaries of chance occurences. What can be gleaned from these statistics, however, is that the major airplane models in current use have good track records, and that the air safety regulations in a few other countries are suspect.

Ten Activities More Dangerous Than Air Travel

March 9, 2010

dangerBy Terry Smiljanich:

Just a few months into 2010, there have been 104 people killed in air crashes worldwide. The most serious was the January crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 after taking off from Beirut, Lebanon, killing all 90 aboard. Consumer Warning Network has written about air safety and ranked the various air carriers, both domestic and international.

Most people are at least a little apprehensive when boarding an airplane, but just how concerned should we all be? What’s more dangerous than getting on an airplane?

According to the National Safety Council’s data on accidents, the lifetime odds of dying from an injury are 1 in 24. The suffering from accidental injury ranges from being bitten by a venomous spider (1 in 716,000) to suffocating in bed (1 in 11,000).

Here’s a list of ten activities that present a greater threat of death than traveling by air, based on lifetime odds.  They are ranked starting with the most dangerous.

  1. Dying in a car crash (19 times more dangerous than traveling by air)
  2. Overdosing on narcotics (8 times more dangerous)
  3. Being killed while crossing a street (7.5 times more dangerous)
  4. Dying in a pickup truck or van crash (4.2 times more dangerous)
  5. Suffocating on an ingested non-food object (4 times more dangerous)
  6. Dying in a building fire (3.7 times more dangerous)
  7. Killed on a motorcycle (3.5 times more dangerous)
  8. Being poisoned (3.3 times more dangerous)
  9. Falling down a flight of stairs (1.7 times more dangerous)
  10. Drowning in natural water (1.5 times more dangerous than air travel)

    We’ve all heard that the car trip to the airport is more dangerous than the plane trip, but how many realize it is almost 20 times more dangerous, or that crossing the street to the air terminal is almost 8 times more dangerous?

    World’s Most Admired Companies

    March 5, 2010

    Apple & GoogleBy Angie Moreschi:

    Fortune Magazine is back at it with another list to capture the collective mindset on which companies are the most admired. “Most admired” falls closely in line with being profitable, as you might imagine, but not always.  Other key factors in getting the nod included respect for the product, service quality and innovation.

    Apple, with its legion of devoted followers, not surprisingly, ranked number one.  It was followed in second place by Google, which I personally could not live without.  Ironically, Toyota, in the midst of its brand meltdown due to safety concerns over sudden acceleration in its vehicles, made the top 10, coming in at number seven.  Also in the top ten, Berkshire Hathaway, Johnson & Johnson, Amazon.com, Proctor & Gamble, Goldman Sachs, Wal-Mart, and Coca-Cola.

    To come up with the list, Fortune’s survey asked businesspeople to vote for the companies they admired most, from any industry.  Here’s a look at the list.  Click on each company to get a description of that company’s business status.

    Top 50 most admired companies overall:

    Rank Company
    1 Apple
    2 Google
    3 Berkshire Hathaway
    4 Johnson & Johnson
    5 Amazon.com
    6 Procter & Gamble
    7 Toyota Motor
    8 Goldman Sachs Group
    9 Wal-Mart Stores
    10 Coca-Cola
    11 Microsoft
    12 Southwest Airlines
    13 FedEx
    14 McDonald’s
    15 IBM
    16 General Electric
    17 3M
    18 J.P. Morgan Chase
    19 Walt Disney
    20 Cisco Systems
    21 Costco Wholesale
    22* BMW
    22* Target
    24 Nike
    25 PepsiCo
    26 Starbucks
    27 Singapore Airlines
    28 Exxon Mobil
    29 American Express
    30 Nordstrom
    31 Intel
    32 Hewlett-Packard
    33 UPS
    34 Nestlé
    35 Caterpillar
    36 Honda Motor
    37 Best Buy
    38 Sony
    39 Wells Fargo
    40 eBay
    41 Nokia
    42 Samsung Electronics
    43 Deere
    44 L’Oréal
    45 AT&T
    46 Lowe’s
    47 General Mills
    48 Marriott International
    49 DuPont
    50 Volkswagen