World’s safest airlines of 2012 named, but how reliable is the data?

A new ranking of the ‘world’s safest airlines’ in 2012 has been released this week.

World's safest airlines 2012

Source: Finnair

The Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre (JACDEC), based in Germany ranked Finnair as the world’s safest airline in its annual survey, followed by:

2. Air New Zealand
3. Cathay Pacific
4. Emirates
5. Etihad
6. EVA Air
7. TAP Portugal
8. Hainan Airlines
9. Virgin Australia
10. British Airways

Read the full airline safety ranking (German)

Controversial results

This kind of research is always going to be controversial. That’s because the results depend on how you’re using the data.

This study analysed all ‘serious’ incidents (the parameters are unclear) and hull loss accidents (aircraft write-offs) by airline in the last 30 years. It weighted this against distance flown by the airline’s passengers during this period.

You can’t assume that the safety risk is proportional to a flight’s length or duration. Statistics show that aircraft accidents are more likely to occur during takeoff and landing: another way of looking at the data.

The wider problem is there are so many variables to consider when trying to assess risk. These studies don’t tend to look beyond the raw data and the individual circumstances behind aircraft accidents.

It is not mentioned how many of those ‘serious’ incidents were caused by mechanical failure, for example, and/or other factors. We know that aircraft accidents tend to occur after a chain of events.

Interestingly, the study based its calculations on hull losses – property damage – and not passenger fatalities.

Compare the proportion of passengers killed to passengers carried by airline and you’ll get another set of results.

But there are more questions.

What about survivability rates? If 100 people die in one airline plane crash and 200 on board another airline, does that make the airline with more fatalities less safe? Data can give rise to different interpretations.

Let’s not forget how incredibly safe air travel is and how regulated its operations are. According to official statistics from the International Transport Association (IATA), as of November 2012 there was 1 accident for every 5.3 million flights across the industry. Bear in mind that this finding is limited to data from its 240 airline members.

Serious aircraft accidents remain rare, so you’re weighing up risks that are low to begin with.

But we shouldn’t be complacent about the important issue of airline safety. We shouldn’t gloss over it either.

Official sources such as the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) – which determines the causes of accidents – provide invaluable data, used by the industry to make further air safety improvements.

The EU’s blacklist of airlines and aircraft that are banned or restricted from entering the EU is also worth looking at if you want to find out who is falling short when it comes to safety.

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