Checking International Airline's Safety
You can check fares, fees and flight schedules for just about any airline in the world with a few keystrokes or a single phone call. But checking the safety of an international airline is a much more complicated task.
European and US regulators evaluate aviation safety, and the airline industry itself has a world-wide safety-audit program, but it's difficult for travelers to check airline safety when buying tickets. There's no restaurant-inspector's score posted on the airplane door or government crash-test star rating printed on your ticket.
That's unfortunate, since interest in airline safety is high. It's been a bad year for aviation fatalities, with more than 700 people killed in 16 crashes around the world so far in 2009. Many involved little-known airlines---some already on watch lists for safety concerns.
"There's no perfect solution at the moment, but it's undoubtedly getting better," said Geoff Want, principal adviser on airline safety at Rio Tinto Group, a global mining company that has its own list of carriers approved for employee travel.
Government regulators in Europe and the US take different approaches to aviation safety.
The European Union evaluates airlines and their planes and publishes a "blacklist" of unacceptable carriers, most recently updated just two weeks ago. The EU blacklist is available on the Internet at ec.europa.eu/transport/(click on "Air," then "List of airlines banned within the EU")
Be prepared, it's long and complex: 233 airlines are completely banned, and eight are allowed to operate under restrictions and conditions. Though its focus started as an airline-by-airline evaluation, the EU has moved more toward building the blacklist on evaluations of entire countries -all airlines from 15 countries have a blanket ban from the EU and are among the 233 cited.
The US Federal Aviation Administration evaluates countries, not carriers. US inspectors decide if a country's aviation infrastructure is up to snuff by counting the number of inspectors watching over airlines, assessing air-traffic-control procedures and evaluating funding and legal authority of aviation regulators. The FAA evaluation is based largely on standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations-chartered group. (US airlines are required to meet or exceed international safety standards.)
The FAA says 101 countries have been assessed; 79 have Category 1 status, meaning the US believes the country meets international standards, and 22 fall into Category 2. Category 2 doesn't mean airlines from that country are banned, only that any new service and airline passenger-sharing ties are frozen. That can have economic impact on a country and its airlines, and the threat of a Category 2 downgrade can prompt improvement.
An FAA spokeswoman says its International Aviation Safety Assessments list, available atwww.faa.gov/about/initiatives/iasa. is "one tool a consumer can use to decide on air travel."
There's surprisingly little overlap between the FAA and EU lists. Airlines from Angola, Benin, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Liberia, Gabon, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Rwanda and Zambia are banned on the EU blacklist, but those countries aren't evaluated at all by the FAA. B0th EU and US regulators share concerns on Congo, Indonesia and Swaziland. The FAA rates Zimbabwe, Israel, the Philippines, Serbia and Montenegro plus several Latin American and Caribbean nations, including Belize, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua, in Category 2, but not the EU.
The airline industry has come up with its own list of sorts, and it can be useful to travelers. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry's world-wide trade group, began working on a standard auditing regimen nine years ago, and it has evolved into an extensive safety check now required of all airlines to be a member of IATA. Passing the audit became mandatory for membership earlier this year; 21 airlines didn't and were removed.