Impact of FAA’s Potential Downgrade of India and Israel Safety Ratings is Limited

Rumors have been swirling for a couple of weeks that the FAA is about to downgrade the safety ratings of India and Israel from Category 1 to Category 2, and an article in the Wall Street Journal last week saw a couple of emails hit my inbox. This may sound dire, but it’s more of a tool to pressure the countries to shape up their regulatory schemes than it is a warning of imminent safety problems. Let me explain.

The FAA’s International Aviation Safety Assessments (IASA) program focuses on individual countries and has nothing to do with specific airlines. In their own words, the program “focuses on a country’s ability . . . to adhere to international standards and recommended practices for aircraft operations and maintenance established by the United Nation’s technical agency for aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).”

So, this is more about regulatory oversight here. Does it mean that El Al, Air India, and other airlines in those countries are unsafe? No, not at all. This says nothing about individual airline safety practices, but it does say that the oversight from the government may not be enough to properly monitor individual airline safety performance.

Practically, when this happens, carriers from those countries are allowed to keep flying their existing schedule to the US but they aren’t allowed to expand at all. In the past, some countries (notably Venezuela, which is now back to Category 1) have balked that this gives US airlines an unfair advantage since they can continue to grow while the local carriers can’t.

The reality here is that adequate governmental oversight is very important to ensuring a safe aviation system, so this sort of move can be the right thing to do if it’s not used for political purposes. The FAA has taken its own fair share of lumps lately, but it’s still one of the best aviation regulatory bodies by far, so these efforts are only going to help improve safety worldwide.

Bottom line? If the countries do get downgraded to Category 2, that wouldn’t change whether I would fly on airlines like El Al, Air India, or other carriers. If I felt comfortable flying them before, I wouldn’t feel any different now.

Update 12/21 @ 1148a: The FAA has now officially downgraded Israel to Category 2

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