The Safest Airlines

Using data mostly from Airsafe.com, below appear Ask the Pilot’s Quarter-Century Safety Achievers — a list of airlines that have gone fatality-free over the past 25 years. Certain small companies are omitted, though I’ve chosen to retain national flag carriers where applicable, regardless of size. All qualifying airlines have been in existence since at least 1980:

Air Berlin
Air Jamaica
Air Malta
Air Mauritius
Air Niugini (Papua New Guinea)
Air New Zealand
Air Portugal
Air Seychelles
Air Tanzania
Air Zimbabwe
Aer Lingus
All Nippon Airways (one crewmember killed by deranged passenger)
Austrian Airlines
Bahamasair
Britannia Airways
BWIA West Indies Airways (Trinidad and Tobago)
Cathay Pacific
Cayman Airways
Finnair
Ghana Airways
Hawaiian Airlines
Icelandair
Lacsa (Costa Rica)
Meridiana (Italy)
Monarch Airlines (UK)
Pluna (Uruguay)
Royal Brunei
Royal Jordanian
Southwest Airlines
Syrianair
TACA (El Salvador)
Tunis Air
Tyrolean Airways (Austria)
Qantas

Several of the above have perfect records pre-dating 1980. Airsafe’s own rankings reach back an additional ten years. I chose 1980 to best account for the changeover period from older, first-generation jets and propliners to what most would consider “modern” fleets.

You may or may not be surprised by some of the finishers — second or third world operators not normally associated with safety. Whether the placement of an Air Zimbabwe, to pick one, attests to exemplary levels of oversight and professionalism is available for argument, and a mild caveat is due. Air Zimbabwe is a tiny outfit with, presently, four jets (two each 737s and 767s). Compare to American Airlines, with close to 800 ships and thousands of daily departures. Since 1980, American has outcrashed Air Zimbabwe 5-0 (including the September 11th aircraft), but plainly the comparison is unfair.

Nonetheless, any unblemished legacy lasting 25 years is impressive on its own accord, particularly when the setting is an underdeveloped nation with substandard facilities and infrastructure. On the cultural sensitivity front, it helps debunk the customary wisdom that Western carriers present far and away better odds than everybody else’s. And bear in mind that an exemption for even a single incident would expand the preceding list hugely, as would allowances for hijackings, hostile shoot-downs, or crashes involving fully or partly administered subsidiaries. A rundown of those counting one fatal mishap since 1980 takes in, just for starters, Royal Air Maroc, Kenya Airways and Mexicana. Even the much maligned Air Afrique, the West African collective that went bust a few years ago, listed but a single death — a lone passenger murdered by a hijacker — over a span of more than 30 years.

Airsafe, by the way, credits our old friend U-Land Airlines with having maintained a spotless register during its short-lived career. While they lasted, U-Land’s good fortunes stood as a testament either to the skills of its crews or to those of its passengers, depending how literally the airline took its name. Or else they were just lucky. In 2000, Taiwanese authorities preemptively shut U-Land down for various airworthiness violations.


This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.