A Terrible Way to Rank Airline Safety

Have you seen the supposed “safety rankings” for 2012 from the Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre (JACDEC)? I know some of you have, because I’ve received emails about it, and it is a truly awful way to measure airline safety. You know I hate to give press to these types of things, but considering that I received emails on the subject, I thought it better to pick this apart instead of letting it stand alone, misleading people.

This safety ranking looked at 60 airlines and ranked them on a safety index. The safest airline in here was Finnair with a .005 ranking. The least safe was China Airlines with a 1.171 ranking. How do they come up with these numbers? Let’s just go straight to the horse’s mouth.

Worst JACDEC Rankings

Based on our annual safety calculations which include all hull loss accidents and serious incidents in the last 30 years of operations in relation to the revenue passsenger kilometers (RPK) performed in the same time. We also took into account the international safety benchmarks such as the IOSA Audit and the USOAP country factor. Furthermore we included a time weightening factor which increases the effect of recent accidents and weakening the impact of accidents in the past. All calculation data ends after a period of 30 years. Fatalities are only counted when they were on board a passenger flight. No ground casualties or 3rd party fatalities in other aircraft. All accidents that fulfills the above mentioned criteria were involved in our calculation, regardless of causes or responsibilities.

That’s right. The “annual” safety ranking looks at accidents in the last 30 YEARS. This is a shockingly long time, and it makes no sense at all if you’re considering safety today. It also doesn’t take into account whether an accident was even the fault of the airline. Oh boy.

Let’s look at China Airlines, the worst airline on the report. There is no question that China Airlines was an unsafe airline back in the 1990s and early 2000s. It had multiple accidents that killed hundreds of people. The accidents were caused by everything from poor maintenance to crew mistakes and lack of coordination. The airline was a mess.

But since that last major accident in May 2002, over 10 years ago, China Airlines made big changes. The result is that there has been only one incident in the last decade. That one was partially due to a maintenance issue but also due to a manufacturing problem. Nobody died.

Now, this hardly makes China Airlines the safest airline around, but it also hardly seems fair to determine its safety currently from its 30 year history. The same goes for Korean Air.

Korean ranks as the fifth most dangerous airline in this year’s survey. Korean also was an airline I would have avoided in the late 1990s as a series of accidents plagued the airline. But Korean was a founding member of SkyTeam in 2000 and it has worked closely with several airlines to make sure its maintenance and crew practices were up to speed. The last incident in the database was in 2000, more than 13 years ago.

I think I’ve made my point, but I’ll use one more a little closer to home. How about SkyWest Airlines? You probably know SkyWest as a regional provider for just about every airline in the US. (Seriously – Alaska, American, Delta, United, and US Airways all use SkyWest.) When is the last time you heard about a safety incident with SkyWest?

Well, the last one that JACDEC counts was waaaaaay back in 1991 when a US Airways 737 landed on top of a SkyWest Metro. People often remember that accident, but it wasn’t SkyWest’s fault. Air traffic control made a fatal mistake. In fact, there is only one incident in the database that appears to be SkyWest’s fault and that resulted in no casualties.

Considering that SkyWest operates more than 1,500 flights a day, you would think that the airline would rank pretty well with such a strong record. But it doesn’t. It’s the tenth least safe airline on the list. That’s worse than airlines like Aeroflot and Alitalia. Though those airlines don’t concern me today either, it’s hard to believe that SkyWest’s record in the last 30 years is worse than Aeroflot’s.

Of course, this survey doesn’t even look at some of the more dangerous airlines out there – those who fly around hot spots in Africa or Indonesia. So if you’ve come across this study, I’d just disregard it.


34 Responses to A Terrible Way to Rank Airline Safety

  1. Seth says:

    I saw this ranking last week and was definitely confused. Going back 30 years makes no sense if it?s an annual report. Technology and safety have greatly improved in 30 years, so using data from that far back doesn’t seem logical. One other airline that stuck out to me was South African Airways. They had one hull loss since 1987. SAA to me is a safe and reliable airline and like many other airlines on this list it seems unfair to label them as unsafe.

    • Im not so upset about looking historically, but the 30 years should be 5-10. Over 30 years most of the industry jobs have turned over. My biggest gripe is counting all accidents the same–regardless of fault. Also, regarding USAOP usage, comparing a US domestic airline like Skywest to an african-based and operating airline is not necesarrily fair. For a consumer deciding which airline to take to Africa, the fact that african-based airlines are hurt by default isn’t fair.

  2. Shane says:

    You forget that Aeroflot did not have any accidents prior to 1991. They did have plenty of flights that were cancelled mid-flight :)

  3. I saw this on the internet news with big letters and a photo of China Airlines and thought it didn’t make sense.

    If I owned an airline that had two airplanes and flew two long haul routes everyday and had one plane down for some issue, a reporter on the nightly news could say half my fleet was grounded or half my flights were canceled today. Well that would be true, but it sure paints a different picture they two flights were canceled due to a plane out of service.

    People/companies/news media take a little info and shape it to the way they want and make a big deal of it to confuse people who don’t research something themselves.

    I guess no one will buy a car ever again due all the crashes the car makers have had over the last 30 years! The fact that most are from the way they were driven and not due to a problem with the car means nothing if something wants to get a story on the nightly news.

  4. Jared says:

    It’s also interesting because airline safety seems to get better exponentially each year. That being said, a carrier like Virgin Australia should have had a better record than American or United, which have been around for over 30 years. But if you look at the safety record over the past 5 years, what are the facts.

    That’s like throwing in the Pinto with Ford’s safety numbers today. Random.

    • Its also interesting that they only include hull-loss and serious incidents. Many of those involve failures beyond the airline’s control.

      It is smaller infractions (like improper weight and balance, ignoring MEL or other inspections, etc.) that are probably better indicators of safety and culture at an airline.

      I believe a more consumer-friendly output would be to group airlines to account for the fact that small variations can change rank dramatically when it represents it might represent no statistically significant change in risk. (i.e. 1 accident 30 years ago based on ATC error,or do we believe that Delta is really that dfferent than United?, etc.)

  5. Bill Hough says:

    Cranky, thanks for debunking that incredibly stupid and misleading report. I saw a breathless, uncritical report of this on a mainstream news outlet that didn’t even question the findings. Good job, keep it up.

    • BW says:

      Local news outlets are a joke in general. My local station recently had a segment on their Saturday morning show with a faith healer. They presented him as Dr. such-and-such. A quick google search revealed he had a doctorate in nutrition from a dubious school. They made it out like he was an MD. He actually said that prayer, meditation, and a lowfat diet were more effective at treating cancer than Chemotherapy and the news hosts just nodded their heads.

  6. Ron says:

    Korean will become a lot safer next year when KAL 007 is purged from the database (it’s in the table above — 01.09.1983, 269).

  7. Most airline related metrics are flawed. I am not sure we will ever find a metric people agree with for safety as it relies on so many different parts. Usually accidents are a combination of factors, internal and external.

    I do wish, however, that the DOT would change baggage mishandling rate to be based on bags flown, not passengers flown, as it makes NO SENSE in its current form.

  8. yo says:

    It is a terrible ranking. Look at USAirways…ranked low, but America West never had a crash or a fatality, and seeing as how flight crews are not integrated, you are flying on one or the other. These days, the crashes have been primarily on small African or Russian carriers flying ancient 737-200’s or Tu-154’s. China Air is a good, safe airline.

    • America West & US Airways have been on the same certificate for a very long time. The crews aren’t integrated but many of the systems are, the maintenance is integrated, and the safety procedures are integrated as well.

      • yo says:

        7 years out of the 30 covered here. But, when you fly on US, you either have a HP or a US crew. HP never had a crash, never had a fatality. US….not so good.

  9. A says:

    This list is great for my morbid curiosity of air disasters. Hmm, wonder if there is an episode of Mayday for that one yet? Love that show.

    Really though, the 1970’s we epic for hull loss accidents and those aren’t on the list. While it’s hard to believe 1983 was 30 years ago there really hasn’t been crazy air safety issues since then. And, the accidents that do happen always lead to new safety measures to avoid more accidents.

  10. JayB says:

    Safety stats do remind me how safe air travel has become. My heyday of travel was the period just before, at, and during the early days of jet travel. Seems like there was hardly a day without us hearing about some horrific aviation event. Wings falling off Electras, propellers or jet engine blades slicing through fuselages, landing and hydraulic malfunctions of every type, let alone hijackings to who knows where. Times have changed for the better.

    But, with data of this type today, do they really tell us very much? Is there much we can do to adjust our buying habits, anyway?

    Safety records, on-time performance, incidences of mishandled baggage, the number of complaints. Measured for application to what? Code-share vs. non-code share? “Operated-by” vs. mainline-operated service?

    To me, a UA-operated by SkyWest is something totally different than service by one of UA’s own mainline aircraft? Does UA know, and publicize the data comparing each of its express operators? How does UA’s SkyWest service compare with its ExpressJet service? And, compared with its mainline service?

    And, if there is such data, does the consumer have the opportunity to make a choice of which service he or she might want to use? Like, SkyWest OK, but Mesa, no? Technically, I guess he or she does, but realistically, I don’t see it. So, what good is any of this data today?

  11. Jim says:

    Well the study does say that it uses a time weighting factor which increases the effect of recent accidents and weakens the impact of accidents in the past. I think that’s a reasonable way of doing it. Just because an airline claims to have cleaned up its house and hasn’t had an incident in a while doesn’t mean it’s just as safe as an airline that hasn’t had an incident for 30 years.

    But the bottom line is that airline travel anywhere in the world is so ridiculously safe that trying to rank airlines is like splitting hairs. It’s impossible to rank airlines when there are such few incidents to begin with.

  12. Time to trot out Mark Twain who famously remarked, “There are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies and statistics.”

  13. The thing is, safety records are so one-dimensional. You go x number of years without a crash and you?re top shelf. But screw up once, your safety record is toast. There?s no unified theory of safety.

  14. steve says:

    SKYWEST AIRLINE. Actually . I think they are talking about SKYWEST that was in AFRICA. not the U.S. based National airline.

    • CF says:

      steve – I know of a Skywest in Australia but not Africa. Either way, this is the US-based one. It gives country of origin in the rankings. You can even see it in the image I posted above.

  15. Axelsarkis says:

    What a joke. GOL’s crash wasn’t even their fault.

  16. John says:

    I’m more interested in the carriers that are on the EU blacklist and have been downgraded by the FAA to B status, those are the ones I avoid.

  17. Idy says:

    There is no mention about Ethiopian Airlines here. My fiance is travelling with Ethiopian Airlines 787 flight from sao paulo to addis and then with 767 from addis to Bangkok. I am very paranoid about the safety. Can anyone tell me if it is safe to fly with Ethiopian airlines??

  18. Berhan Harris says:

    Can someone please help me. I have a flight from Vancouver to Indonesia via Taipei and I am flying with China Airlines I am very worried about these safety concerns and I am almost considering cancelling my flight and booking with a new airline I’m already a nervous flyer and this does not help can someone please give me there experience with China Airlines Thank you

    • CF says:

      Berhan – It’s been more than a decade since China Airlines has had an accident that was its fault. (There was a non-fatal issue on the ground in Okinawa in 2007 that was widely blamed on Boeing.) So that should make you feel more confident.

  19. Berhan Harris says:

    Hi CF ya I read online its been a while since there was a serious incident but I still feel a bit uncomfortable with there past would you personally fly China Airlines and not be worried 1 bit? Thanks

    • Berhan, you have to remember that airlines are really really safe. The most statistically dangerous part of your trip will be the car or train ride to the airport. Yes airplanes crash, but its an infinitesimally small percentage of the number of flights that are flown. Plus if you look at the history, in recent crashes an astonishing majority of the passengers and crew survived with minimal or no injuries.

      China Airlines is also based in Tawian, so it is likely to be better regulated than an airline on the mainland. Also, China Airlines has a modern fleet, that averages 9.8 years old. 9.8 years might seem like a longish time, but thats pretty young for an airline fleet. Remember, unlike your car they take airplanes more or less completely apart every few years to inspect them. (An FYI, Delta Airlines has an average fleet age of 17 years, and some of their airplanes are older than me at 35 years old!) Most of China Airlines’ planes are 11 or 12 years old, and a few are 6 years old: http://www.airfleets.net/ageflotte/China%20Airlines.htm

      Bottom line: You should be fine. Just make sure to be nice to the flight attendants. They are there for your safety.

    • onholdguy says:

      Berhan,

      Your concerns are justified. You are being an informed passenger. I flew China Air in 2008 and 2010 and that was before I knew of their dubious history. I may reconsider and look at Cathay or another airline. I dont know if I would fly on China Air again.

  20. Berhan Harris says:

    Thank you CF and Nick Barnard for your comments I think I’ll stick with China Airlines and enjoy my Vaca :)

  21. Simon kemp says:

    1979 was Air New Zealand’s annus horribulus as because of not communicating a flight path change to the crew the whole plane flew into Mt. Errubus in Antarctica with 100% loss of life. Air NZ Management from the top tried to cover up the mistake and made sure that the Royal Commissioner who discovered their “orchestrated litany of lies” never worked again. One really has to question their integrity and ability to run an airline safely. Has Qantas lost an plane? No. So why is it languishing so far down the list? It looks like it is because they are a long haul carrier so that gives them a lower mark. I am confused.

  22. Dani Korpi says:

    The safety rankings show the 60 SAFEST airlines in the world. You completely misinterpreted the meaning of the rankings. There are almost a 1000 airlines in the world, and this list only shows the 60 safest of them. So to even be on this list is an indication of a good safety record. For example, China Airlines is 60/1000 in terms of safety rankings. Not so bad, right? Please try to be more careful before making hasty conclusions.

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