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How Safe Is Your Airline? Here’s How to Tell

Air travel is, by most statistical standards, safer than driving a car. But the recent spate of plane crashes has generated some public safety speculation. In an Associated Press story, Jon Beatty, President and CEO of the airline-supported Flight Safety Foundation, noted the most fundamental fact about modern airline safety: “One of the things that makes me feel better when we look at these events is that if they all were the same type of event or same root cause then you would say there’s a systemic problem here, but each event is unique.” That’s the key: Each event is unique.

Worldwide, the overall approach to safety is to determine the cause of each accident beyond a reasonable doubt, then either fix the cause or develop ways to avoid it, so it never happens again. When foul play is involved, the safety folks also want to know who did what, how they did it, and how to prevent a recurrence. Government agencies, airlines, and airplane manufacturers act cooperatively to make sure the safety system works this way.

That’s why so many different government agencies have spent millions of dollars to find Malaysia flight 370 and its black boxes. It’s not just idle curiosity or even a desire to find and return victims’ bodies and property; it’s the near-absolute necessity of determining precisely why that plane disappeared and presumably crashed, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The mystery of flight 17 is narrower: The industry knows that the plane was shot down by a missile; questions are mainly about whose missile it was and who fired it.

Nevertheless, people can’t resist the urge to go beyond this basic fact and try to develop air-travel safety “tips.” Some of them are just common sense; others are off the mark. But you’ll read about them after just about any accident. This AP story is no exception, with its recommendations:

Assess the airline. The European Union regularly bars airlines from European skies on the basis of suspected poor safety practices. The AP urges that you avoid any airline on that list; that’s good advice. Yet the AP goes on to suggest that membership in the International Air Transport Association (IATA) provides some sort of safety assurance, which is not such good advice. IATA is not primarily a safety organization, and for various reasons, lots of excellent airlines are not members. Among them are Allegiant, Frontier, Southwest, Spirit, Sun Country, Virgin America, and WestJet in North America, and EasyJet and Ryanair, among others in Europe. Does non-membership mean Southwest isn’t as safe as one of the legacy airlines? I suspect not.

Look at the numbers. The next recommendation is that you check the several sources of airline safety information. AirSafe and Aviation Safety Network tabulate lots of historical safety records, by airline, region, model, and a bunch of other variables. But that advice is tough to put to practical use. After tabulating years and years of data, both websites conclude that historical data cannot really provide any guidance about which airline or plane model is most likely to suffer the next crash. The numbers provide no guidance. So what’s the point of looking at them?

The takeaway from all this is that, regardless of the events of the last few months, air travel remains extremely safe. You have no way to determine whether any airline or flight you might be considering for your next trip is more or less safe than any other. And if you can’t accept that degree of uncertainty, stay home.

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