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How Safe is flying?

How safe if flying can only be comprehended by the average air traveler if there is some form of comparison. The most easily understood method is through statistics. Statistics, however are derived from a few methods.

The first attempt to measure safety is by calculating the deaths per billion passenger miles. This method is not very accurate  as it treat fatality as proportional to distances flown. Thus, there would be discrepancies when trying to compare two Airlines, one that fly short distances and the other one that specializes in long haul flights.   When these two Airlines carrying the same number of passengers are involved in a fatal crash, they would reveal different statistics.

The second method use 'death per enplanement' formula. It uses the ratio of passengers killed to the number of passengers carried. Again, this would not provide an accurate picture.  For instance, if a wide body aircraft is flying under capacity, say 100 instead of 400 passengers, in a crash, it would give a different result when compared to small aircraft flying with full capacity.

The preferable method is the death risk index that is based on a passenger who would be involved in a fatal accident if he takes a random flight over a particular period.

The 10 years statistics compiled by Dr Arnold Barnett from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the period 1987 to 1996 indicated that the mortality risk per flight for international jet in the advanced world was one in five million.  Translated simply, if you were to take a random flight every day, it would take you about 13,000 years (5,000,000 divided by 365 days) to be involved in a fatal crash.  In the developing word, the statistics is lower; one in 400,000 flights. With this lower statistic, you still have to take a flight every day for about 1000 years before you are likely to be killed in an air crash!

To give you a better picture, why not compare this safety statistics to something more down to earth, the motor car? Please bear with me for statistics can be a bit technical and complicated to understand sometimes. According to the US National Safety Council, the Scheduled Airlines death rate was 0.04 per hundred million passenger miles.  Compared to the automobile death rate of 0.86 per hundred million passenger miles, traveling in motor cars are 21 times more dangerous than flying by air. 

In terms of number of deaths, the comparative figures are more discouraging.   In 1995, there were only 175 deaths due to air crash in the US compared to 42000 killed in motor accidents. This is 240 times more deaths due to driving than flying! In 1998, there were no air fatalities involving commercial flights in the US but the figures for 2001 may be more in view of the latest Airbus 300 crash in New York with 260 deaths. The statistics above does not include death in the air caused by terrorism or hijackings.

Which is the safest Airline?

Some air travelers would also like to know as to which Airline is safer than the others. Generally, Airlines from the advanced world have a better safety records than those from the developing world. 

It must be borne in mind that the safety of an Airline is dependant on many factors, namely the management of the Company, the age of the aircraft, how the training standards are being maintained, whether the standard operating procedures are properly adhered to, the proper maintenance of the aircraft and sometimes there are outside factors that are beyond their control. Accidents that arose can be a combination of many factors. 

Listed below are the 10 safest Airlines for each region of the world. The list is not meant to endorse any Airlines nor to discredit others. It is meant to be for the knowledge and guidance of the air travelers. The rankings are based on the factual accident rate which are subjected to corrections as time changes.

Safest Airline

United States and Canada



Accident Rate

1 Delta Airlines 0.30
2 North West 0.43
3 Aloha Airlines 0.49
4 United Airlines 0.50
5 American Airlines 0.53
6 US Air 0.56
7 Air Canada 0.63
7 Continental Airlines 0.63
8 Alaska Airlines 0.74
8 TWA 0.74

United States and Canada are classified under the Advanced World category.  From the table above, the accident rates for all the 10 Airlines are below 1.0 indicating that have a very safe record. So you can choose any of them between 1 and 8 and they should deliver you to your destinations safely.

Caribbean & Latin/South America

Rankings Airlines Accident Rate
1 Mexicana Airlines 0.53
2 Aerolineas Argentinas 1.20
3 Varig 1.22
4 Aeromexico 1.85
5 Transbrazil 2.35
6 Avianca 3.15
7 VASP 3.24
8 LAN Chile 4.00
9 Aero Peru 16.7
10 Cubana 24.0

In the Caribbean & Latin/South American areas, the disparity between the safest and the least safest is quite marked. The first five rankings seems reasonable even though they are classified under the Developing World category..


Rankings Airlines Accident Rate
1 British Airways 0.32
2 Lufthansa 0.41
3 Braathens SAFE 0.74
4 Alitalia 0.77
5 Iberia 0.89
6 British Midlands 0.97
7 TAP Portugal 1.18
8 Air France 1.19
9 Swiss Air 1.25
10 Olympic Airways 1.67

European Airlines all come under the Advanced World category and their records indicate their better safety standards.  

Africa and Middle East

Rankings Airlines Accident Rate
1 South African 0.63
2 Saudi Airlines 1.40
3 Royal Air Moroc 1.54
4 Kenyan Airways 3.00
5 Air Afrique 3.33
6 Ethopian 4.00
7 Nigerian Airways 5.00
8 Egypt Air 8.00
9 Royal Jordanian 8.82
10 Air Zimbabwe 12.50

In Africa and the Middle East, only South Africa has been grouped under the Advanced World category.  Its record is fairly impressive when compared to the other African/Middle East countries.

Australia and Asia

Rankings Airlines Accident Rate
1 Qantas 0.00
2 All Nippon Airways 0.22
3 Air New Zealand 0.74
4 Cathay Pacific Airways 0.97
5 Malaysia Airlines 1.11
6 Thai International 1.90
7 Singapore/Silk Air 2.00
8 Japan Airlines 2.05
9 Garuda Airlines 4.08
10 Philippines Airlines 4.68

The Rankings listed above are for information only and are the personal opinion of the author. There are many criteria used by other organizations to provide rankings for Airlines and the author is not legally responsible for any reliance of the above information.
Statistics valid through December 31, 2000


Qantas appears to be one of the safest Airline in the world with a record of zero fatalities in its many years of operation. All Nippon Airways has a even better record than the American or European best Airlines.

Which is the safest aircraft?

As a general rule, newer aircraft model are safer for obvious reasons.  The Boeing 777 has been in operation for about 5 years and has the least accident rate.  It  would be my choice as the safest aircraft.  Besides, I fly this aircraft and can vouch for its comfort and reliability.  I do not represent the Manufacturer but I can say that this aircraft is very versatile with many safety features.  It is the first aircraft to be completely designed by computers and has the latest avionics and navigational systems.

However, all other aircraft are just as safe. The certification of every aircraft model must adhere to the same set of standards otherwise they would not be released by the authorities for the carriage of passengers.

Below is a list of safest aircraft rankings based on the accident rate.  I have added 3 new model of the latest aircraft,  the Boeing 777, Airbus 340 and Airbus 330.  So far, the Boeing 777 and the Airbus 340 have a clean record and are therefore rated safest according to my ranking.


Aircraft Model Accident Rate
1 Boeing 777 0.00
1 Airbus 340 0.00
2 Airbus 330 (?)
2 Saab 340 0.33
3 McDonnell MD-80 0.40
4 Boeing 767 0.46
5 Boeing 757 0.56
6 Boeing 737 0.60
7 Boeing 727 0.66
8 Fokker70/100 0.67
8 Airbus 319/320/321 0.67
9 Embrader 120 0.71
10 McDonnell DC-9 0.76
11 BAE 146 0.89
12 L-1011 Tristar 0.91
13 Airbus 300 1.00
14 Boeing 747 1.55
15 Airbus 310 1.85
16 McDonnell DC-10 1.97
17 Fokker 28 2.35
18 Embrader 110 3.73
19 McDonnell MD-11 5.71
20 Aerospatile Concorde 12.50

The Rankings listed above are for information only and are the personal opinion of the author. There are many criteria used by other organizations to provide rankings for Airlines and the author is not legally responsible for any reliance of the above information.
Statistics valid through December 31, 2000.


How stringent are maintenance of aircraft?

Maintenance of an aircraft is many times more stringent than that of your car. If you have a problem with your car, you can always stop by the roadside to rectify it or call for the mechanic to help out.  Whereas in the air, any serious defect could put many lives into jeopardy.  Hence, regulators imposed very strict conditions for Airlines to follow to ensure that aircraft maintenance is kept to the highest standard.

Before an aircraft is released for flight, all the systems are properly certified by the various Aircraft Engineers that they are fit and serviceable for flight.  After every landing at the following airport, a similar check is also carried out.  Any defects are duly rectified before the next flight.  

Basically there are two types of maintenance.  There is the scheduled maintenance and an unscheduled one where defects are rectified when they are reported by the aircrew after every flight.

Scheduled maintenance are very detailed work carried out on the aircraft at specified period or when life of the various aircraft components expire.

Overall, a typical maintenance program would be something like this:

  • Prior to every flight, maintenance personnel would conduct a thorough visual inspection of the aircraft, checking for dents, damage or cracks on the body and any oil or fuel leaks from the systems.
  • In addition, after every 3 to 5 days, the plane's surface controls, namely the elevator, ailerons, flaps and rudders would also be thoroughly checked.  It would also include the landing gears, brakes, various fluid level as well as the oxygen system.
  • Every 8 months, the internal control system, all the emergency equipment and the hydraulic system are carefully checked.
  • Every 12 to 17 months, the maintenance crew do an even more detailed check using devices to probe for wear and tear, corrosion  and cracks in components that are not visible to the eyes.
  • After every 3 to 5 years, the aircraft is taken apart for a major overhaul. This entails the removal of major components that are life expired and replaced with newer ones where applicable.

Where is the safest seat that I should be sitting in an event of a crash?  

Theoretically speaking, the better seat to look for is one that is facing to the back of the aircraft.   Why is it so? A backward facing seat gives better protection to a passenger in an event of an impact because of the back cushion. Unfortunately, you  can never find one nowadays in any Airline except in those VIP or executive jets.   It appears that such backward facing seats does not appeal to the fare paying passengers.  Naturally, most people want to choose a seat that is forward looking.

Practically, there is no specific area that is safer than the other.  Of course, some believe that it is safer to sit near the wings or in the rear of the cabin.  However if you want to be extra cautious, naturally the better place to be in an event of an emergency evacuation is to be near an emergency exit.

During which phase of the flight should I be more alert than other times?

The take off and climb to cruising altitude and the descent and landing phase of the airplane are the two most critical phase of the entire journey. Why?  This is because the engines are at their maximum power in order to safely lift off the ground whereas during the cruising phase, the engine thrust are considerably reduced.  During the final approach and landing, the cockpit crew have to cope with many variables like strong winds, low level turbulence, wind shear or low visibility. Such weather phenomena do put a lot of demand on the cockpit crew. Statistically, about seventy percent of all serious accidents occur during these critical phase of the flight that constitute only about less that five percent of the whole journey.

Are older planes less reliable?

All aircraft components have a life that are monitored very closely. When they are due, the components must be changed and the aircraft engineer are under a duty to certified its replacement. Unlike a car where most people only replace a particular part when it breaks down, a fully serviceable component in a aircraft must be replaced when the life, measured in terms of hours are up.  Therefore an older aircraft with new components after a major overhaul is almost just as good as a new aircraft.

What are the likely causes of an air crash?

The chances of an aircraft crashing is statistically very low but given the wide publicity generated by the media, it appears that statistics are misleading to the average air traveler. Having said that, Murphy Law will point out that what can go wrong can go wrong.

Causes of an air crash are hard to pinpoint. You can have people hijacking an aircraft and deliberately crashing it into high rise building like the September 11th tragedy at the Twin Towers and others like the Airbus 300 that crashed after about  two and a half minutes after take off from JFK Airport in New York.  To precisely analyze the actual cause of the crash, the 'black box' which contains a voice recorder and a flight data recorder, will assist the investigators to determine what actually transpired during the last 30 minutes of the flight.

Imagine yourself driving a car and someone ask you hypothetically as to how likely are you going to be involved in a crash when you drive on the highway. You would say, very unlikely.  Okay, I admire your confidence.  Think about this.  Air travel is about 20 times safer than driving.  Now you can forget about what can cause an airplane to crash!

What are the more common emergencies that I can expect in a flight?

Even though airplane are very reliable, bearing in mind Murphy Law, one must still prepare for any exigencies. There are two very important emergencies that every air traveler must be prepared to face every time you fly.  They are the emergency evacuation drills and the usage of emergency oxygen system in an event of  unforeseen depressurization. (You can refer to this topic in the FAQS) Unfortunately, I have observed that not all the air travelers paid very much attention to demonstration by the cabin crew.  (Maybe they have great confidence in the airplane!)

Who investigates air accidents and make recommendations for improvement?

Whenever there is an airline accident,  the first thing that occurs will be the formation of an investigation team whose task would be to determine the cause of the crash and then make recommendations for future improvement.   The responsibility of convening such a team lies with the country where the accident occurs or  country where the aircraft was registered.  In the United States, the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the aircraft and engines manufacturers and the Airline involved would be involved in the investigation.  If the accident involved sabotage or hijacking like the September 11th attack in Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would also be involved in the investigation.

Is this information sufficient for your knowledge?    


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