Breaking Down Airline Safety Records

The Daily Beast says it has determined which airlines in the U.S. are the safest by comparing the global statistics for the 25 airlines with the best safety records and those with the worst. Which is the safest? The answer may come as a surprise, since this methodology showed that AirTran is the safest national carrier.

AirTran? Really? Turns out that the discount carrier once known as ValuJet has turned safety into a priority.

“It has been a great five years for us in which our continual dedication to safety has paid off,” says Christopher White, a spokesman for AirTran. “Our 8,500 crew members make safety their No. 1 priority every day.

Meanwhile, United, accused of being the least safe of the major airlines, wasn’t impressed with the analysis. “It is difficult for us to comment on these figures because we do not know the methodology behind them,” said a United spokesperson.

You can see the Daily Beast’s results, here.

One interesting bit of information from the article is that the age of the actual aircraft in which you’re flying has less of an impact on safety than how long ago that particular model was designed. In aviation writer CLive Irving’s analysis of the research, he noted:

Last December a Continental 737 [designed in the 1950s] taking off from Denver aborted at the last second and, in icy conditions, skidded into a ravine. Thirty eight passengers were injured. The 737’s fuselage broke apart behind the wings, a failure typical of a design of that age.

Now look at the Miracle on the Hudson. The Airbus A320 [designed in the 1980s] hit the water at around 160 mph, a considerable impact. The fuselage remained in one piece, everybody got out. I doubt very much that would have been true in the case of a 737. Add to that the ability of the A320’s fly-by-wire controls to give Captain Sully Sullenberger a stable attitude on very little backup power and the Airbus technology is proved to be a real life saver.

How Safe Is Your Airline?
[The Daily Beast]
What to Know About Airline Safety Records [The Daily Beast]

(Photo: Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie)


Edit Your Comment

  1. ARP says:

    I think this fairly common. The company that just had an incident, is in trouble, or just received lots of bad exposure is likely to be a safer bet in a lot of areas. Many of the other companies are just lucky or haven’t been caught yet.

  2. MostlyHarmless says:

    Ha! I have a friend who works for Boeing and is very anti-airbus. I should show that last quote to him. He’ll throw hissy fits.

    • TheWillow says:

      @MostlyHarmless: I have a mom who does safety analysis for an FAA contractor… She hates all planes.


    • nnj says:

      Me too…I’m not a scarebus fan either.

    • Chip Skylark of Space says:

      @MostlyHarmless: After the Air France plane disappeared this summer, I told my wife that we will NOT be flying any damned Airbus planes because of the inability of a pilot to fly the plane off the wire, and because it’s held together by epoxy.

      We’ve lost the Air France plane, and the one that went down in Brooklyn in late 2001 because of the way that Airbus builds their planes. I ain’t makin’ that mistake with my family, and I live in NWA territory, where it’s hard to not fly Airbuses.

      • floraposte says:

        @SteverMan: Of course, McDonnell-Douglas beats them out handily on the fatality numbers from the way they build planes.

        • johnmc says:

          @floraposte: McDonnell Douglas was bought by Boeing. I’m not exactly their biggest fan, despite them bearing my last name.

          • floraposte says:

            @johnmc: Yeah, I’m meaning the planes made before the merger, specifically the DC-10 and the MD-11. And I deliberately said “numbers” rather than “rates,” because of course hull-loss in the big planes is going to disproportionately skew a manufacturer’s figures. Basically, I was trying to make the point that condemning a whole manufacturer’s planes isn’t really logical.

      • NeverLetMeDown says:


        Well, your money, your call, but honestly, that’s a fundamentally unscientific position to take. There is no valid statistical difference between the Airbus and the Boeing. In addition, there could very well be any number of situations where Airbus’s hard limits in the fly by wire actually averted accidents, but of course, that wouldn’t be reported.

        At least do me (and your kids) this favor – don’t take Airbus avoidance as a reason to drive instead of fly – that truly IS endangering your family.

      • Ayle says:

        Are you freaking serious????

        “I told my wife that we will NOT be flying any damned Airbus planes because of the inability of a pilot to fly the plane off the wire”

        FIY Fly-By-Wire(FBW for short) has been used for ages in military plane and is being used by bot Boeing and Airbus. Hell even the Space Shuttle use that technology! When power is lost the planes can use either it’s internal batteries or the RAT, a fan that pops out in the case of power failure.

        “because it’s held together by epoxy”

        Say what? If you want to talk about plastic planes and rivet-free bonding, look not much further than the 787. Almost entirely made in composite materials, the different parts come together with some kind of heat bonding, all the manufacturers are moving away from riveting because it save weight and it puts less stress on the part and it as safe, if not safer than old methods.

        “We’ve lost the Air France plane, and the one that went down in Brooklyn in late 2001 because of the way that Airbus builds their planes.”

        We don’t know what happened to the Air France plane. But it had more to do with the weather than the plane.
        And the Hudson plane went down because its engines were damaged by geese… What does Airbus have to do with that???

        Your fears are totally unfounded…

        • EllieM says:

          @Ayle: “And the Hudson plane went down because its engines were damaged by geese… What does Airbus have to do with that???” I think Stever was referring to the American Airlines crash in 2001 where the vertical stabilizer came off the plane, caused by pilot error, but design of the plane did contribute.

          However, both Boeing and Airbus build safe planes and all complex machines have some sort of design flaw somewhere. No reason to not get on an Airbus. For a comparison of accident rates between Boeing and Airbus (that shows no real difference in the rates) see []

        • Trai_Dep says:

          @Ayle: Geese have it in for the Airbus.

          • NeverLetMeDown says:


            Given the net outcome (Airbus raised from the bottom of the East River intact, geese turned into an aerosol by the engines), I’d say it’s more that Airbuses (Airbii?) have it in for the geese.

        • darkwing says:

          @Ayle: What he meant to say, I think, was that Airbus has a track record of problems in composite/aluminum joints, which is absolutely true. (They fail infrequently, but much more frequently than the same aluminum/aluminum joint in similar aircraft.) So, yes, his “fears” are completely founded. Low-probability, but founded.

          @EllieM: Sorry, but if the pilot exercises a flight control below maneuvering speed — in accordance with company policy, no less — and the flight control departs the aircraft, that’s a design flaw, not pilot error.

  3. boredpilot says:

    I have to say that the comparison of the 737 accident to the Airbus accident in the Hudson is ridiculous. The 737 has proven for years its safety and reliability and has constantly been improved as technology improves. The Airbus is a great airplane but has been plagued with electrical gremlins since before they carried passengers when they flew it a spectacular crash at the 1988 French air show [google the video – its crazy]. Also Jet Blue had a recent problem with the “amazing gee-wiz” fly-by-wire when the nose wheel turned 90 degrees on landing in LAX in 2005. From a career pilot – don’t listen to the hype in this article. Although you do need to listen the facts in the Buffalo crash this past winter. … again, from a career pilot.

  4. NeverLetMeDown says:

    Ranking US airlines by safety is an essentially meaningless task. They’re all so incredibly, overwhelmingly safe that any differences are truly immaterial. You’re far far more likely to be killed driving to or from the airport.

    • Orv says:

      @NeverLetMeDown: That was my reaction, too. The sample size here is so very, very small. I also note that the top-ranked airline is one that doesn’t fly overseas, where the air traffic control and airport infrastructure isn’t always up to U.S. standards.

      • darkwing says:

        @Orv: That’s particularly interesting because long-haul-heavy airlines tend to be safer, owing to the reduced number of takeoffs and landings and pressurization cycles. So for a high-cycle airline to be that safe is doubly interesting.

  5. floraposte says:

    The question that they’re ducking, though, is what information is actually predictive? Their analyst talks about age of aircraft design as significant, but Southwest, which is in their top three (and the top three are close to equal), relies entirely on that exact vintage 737 fuselage that the article decries.

  6. Trai_Dep says:

    It’s important to keep in mind how crazy-safe air travel is. One needs to also strip out the majors from the regional partners/affiliates into their own categories. And one needs to look at the number of total passenger flight-miles an airline makes.
    So, say Airborn Felines Airlines having “bad” stats could mean their cut-rate affiliate shares a disproportionate role (this doesn’t free United of blame but changes the prescription from Avoid AFA to Avoid AFA’s Affiliate), or that AFA flies 100x more passenger miles than a more highly rated airline.
    (Not a pilot but a big fan of Patrick Ask The Pilot Smith)

    • Trai_Dep says:

      @Trai_Dep: (darn, missed a “United”. Imagine fuzzy kittens arcing across the continent, several passengers delicately held in its mouth, for the above instance of “United”)

    • floraposte says:

      @Trai_Dep: They separated the regionals out–their chart is on the second page. And on my computer, it’s the one you can actually freaking read.

      • Trai_Dep says:

        @floraposte: Ah, it’s good that he broke out the regionals. He factored in passenger flight-miles, too. Also, Maxa factored for 1- and 5-year averages, and “incidents” versus crashes. And he closes by noting how absurdly safe air travel is in general, and how great the trending is today. Bravo!

        I don’t like this as much: “The chances of you being on a flight with at least one fatality are 10 times greater in the loser bucket [a ‘risky’ airline].”
        I like Rudy Maxa, and overall it’s a good article, but his point is a bit overwrought: while buying 10 lottery tickets improves my odds correspondingly, I still shouldn’t quit my day job.

        I’ll close with a hopefully reassuring note from Patrick Smith’s latest column:
        “Domestically, the fatal accident rate has been reduced an astonishing 83% in the past 10 years.”

        That’s impressive.

  7. nnj says:

    Along with the United spokesperson, I would like to see the methodology also. There are so many factors in an airline safety concept, such as weather and the amount of daily flights.

  8. pot_roast says:

    Yes, really, it’s AirTran. The Valujet thing was 15 years ago. It’s history. Let it go. The new airline (which was a blend of two companies, actually) has one of the youngest all Boeing fleets and for the most part really does take safety seriously. (Yes, it’s true.. it also helps with lower insurance rates. Fewer OJIs? Better rates, higher employee retention, etc.)

    AirTran has also been in the top rankings for Best Low Fare Carrier for the past couple of years. Really, let the “Ooooh hurf durf its Valujet” stuff go. (No, I don’t work for them, but I do fly on them)

  9. ZeGoggles says:

    Ha — More bad press for United. Love it.

    Now, if we can just find a way to kick them out of IAD….

  10. categorically says:

    What a horrible article.

    The 737-300/400/500 was designed in the late 70s early 80s and the current 737-600/700/800 was designed in the late 80s/early 90s. The Airbus was designed in the late 70s early 80s and has had continual improvements since then, just like the 737.

    Get in a 737-100/200 and then jump in a brand new 737-700 and you’ll not recognize the plane at all. The only thing that is similar is the width and shape of the fuselage. Everything else is engineered recently.

    Comparing the crash in Denver to the crash in NYC is like apples and oranges. Once could easily find an Airbus crash similar to the Denver one with the 737 with similar results. Oh wait, here is one. []

    Now give me one of those old NW/DL DC-9s in a crash. Those were built to last and many where built before I was born.

    • endless says:


      disclaimer: i prefer Boeing jets, no real scientific reason.

      but the OP states “Thirty eight passengers were injured. The 737’s fuselage broke apart behind the wings, a failure typical of a design of that age.”

      looking at the photo from your link

      the fuselage looks intact. badly burned, but intact.

    • bsoft says:


      Absolutely correct. The aircraft involved in the Continental accident, N18611 was a 737-500 that entered service in 1994.

      The 737 (every variant) is a fine aircraft with an excellent safety record. The Next-Generation 737 (-600, -700, -800, and -900) have been involved in very few accidents, and even the “classic” 737 (-300/-400/-500) is quite safe when operated by an aircraft that performs maintenance and training properly (e.g. Southwest, which flies hundreds of 737-300s and 737-500s without a single passenger fatality).

      It’s difficult to argue that the A320 series is ‘safer’ than the 737NG because there just isn’t very much data either way. Both aircraft are very, very safe.

      Now, newer technology DOES make a difference. TCAS, GPWS, and other technologies have made flying considerably safer. But even the relatively old 737-300s that Southwest is flying have been retrofitted with newer avionics.

      Forget 1 in 13 million. In the last 7 years, on US airlines, it’s more like 1 in 100 million.

      As for the DC-9? It’s going to be killed by noise regulations and higher operating costs, not because it’s unsafe.

  11. sassbrown74 says:

    This seems like a pretty irresponsible piece. U.S. carriers are all fairly safe. Meanwhile Southwest has never had a fatal accident in its history. Can’t say the same of AirTran (or other carriers for that matter).

  12. jamar0303 says:

    Now if there was only some similar comparison for the whole world… Oddly enough, the airline that’s based where I am (Shanghai Airlines- creative name, I know) has apparently had zero fatalities (or major incidents, for that matter) but they codeshare with United instead of running their own flights to America. Wonder how much longer that’s going to last if this report starts running around the Chinese media.

  13. EllieM says:

    @drgmobile: I hate to agree with United’s spokesman, but the article is worthless without methodology. You can skew statistics however you want.

    For example, suppose the article looked at crashes within the last 15 years to determine safety. United’s last accident (excluding 9/11) was in 1991. Meanwhile carriers deemed safer in the article have had more and more recent accidents. Just to pick 2 airlines that scored above United in the article, Southwest had the accident at Chicago Midway a few years ago. American had the accident where the tail fin came off over NY in 2001, the Little Rock accident in 1999, and in 1995 crashed into a mountain in Colombia.

    Flying is safe. Given how few accidents have occurred on US airlines, I doubt there is a statistically significant methodology of determining which airline is safest.

  14. sirwired says:

    I agree that this “study” is completely, utterly, useless without access to the methodology. My biggest question: what is an “incident” that they are using to calculate these scores?

    • floraposte says:

      @sirwired: It’s not their term, it’s the NTSB’s term: “an occurrence other than an accident, associated with the operation of an aircraft, which affects or could affect the safety of operations.”

  15. Oranges w/ Cheese says:

    To their credit, before the big Everglades crash, I don’t really recall Airtran having many serious problems. And after, I haven’t heard anything serious either. The Everglades crash was their fault, but it was also the fault of the loading company responsible for putting the cargo on the plane, for which the airline has only small responsiblity.
    Plus, they have (or at least had until recently) THE NEWEST fleet, so of course its going to be safer.

    • bilge says:

      @Oranges w/ Cheese in rainy Central FL: How does new = safe?

    • floraposte says:

      @Oranges w/ Cheese in rainy Central FL: Valujet was riddled with problems, so much so that the FAA wanted to ground them a few months before the Florida crash. I believe they also let a similar oxygen situation slip through after the crash. I fully agree that they’re a fine airline now, but they really were dicey as hell then. (Basic media reporting really doesn’t give you a consistent idea of airline problems, so what most of us hear isn’t likely to be representative.) I think they’re in really good shape now, but I can’t agree that their bad rep as Valujet was undeserved.

      JetBlue’s fleet is actually newer, but the newest fleet isn’t necessarily the safest fleet anyway.

  16. sevenwhitehorses says:

    i vote for the 737 being a fabulous aircraft. look at what happened with Aloha for an example. an aircraft frame 19 years old at the time of the accident which had sustained a remarkable number of takeoff-landing cycles – 89,090, the second most cycles for a plane in the world at the time and it had a huge section of the fuselage rip off and still flew! and landed safely! only loosing one flight attendant. aircraft are designed with controlled area breakaway zones. there are incidences of 737’s making water landings and not sustaining any breaking of their fuselage. on the other hand, there are many airbus flights that due to ‘poor weather’ or faulty stabilizers the entire aircraft tore apart in flight and crashed. the blame for airbus incidents has often been blamed on that fly by wire technology.

    • floraposte says:

      @sevenwhitehorses: The 737s have indeed been a solid aircraft, but they had a rather nasty run of rudder problems themselves; on the other hand, I’m not recalling a “break apart in flight” problem with the Airbus (even the Air France flight turned out not to have done that)–which flights are you thinking of?

  17. RedwoodFlyer says:

    @darkwing: No…because company policy was a complete 180 from what the designers had recommended.

    If Ford sells my company a fleet of cars, and tells me that the gas is on the right/brake on the left, and I tell my employees that the gas is on the left/brake on the right, how the hell is that a design fault?

    • darkwing says:

      @RedwoodFlyer: Airbus was far too quiet on the issue — they certainly never “recommended” it like you suggest. They should have treated it as the design flaw it was, not ignored it.