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Assessing Airline Safety

Given the geographical spread of humanitarian and development operations globally, organisations work in a variety of countries and often utilise national and international airlines to reach different locations. To know whether their staff should utilise air travel, or a specific airline, organisations look for airline assessments. While individual international airlines make their own announcements and statements about their safety, there is no comprehensive assessment publicly available related to airline safety and use in most countries. This article, therefore, seeks to help organisations better understand how airlines are regulated, the risks associated with air travel, and the different airline options available in order that each organisation can make their own assessment as to which airlines, and under what conditions, staff will be able to utilise them for official travel.

Air Travel Regulation Globally

Air travel regulation is complex and International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is one of the few transnational regulatory bodies. This is due to the transnational nature of flights and the need to have some form of global safety and compliance when flights travel through international air space and cross borders upon landing. That said, each country, has their own regulative framework and there is no guarantee that even if they have a regulatory framework for airlines in their country that the regulation is evenly applied.

Airlines, and air travel, in most countries is regulated by a national body often called the Civil Aviation Authority or something similar. The job of this department is to have oversight over the regulations airlines, or people, must comply with in order to operate in that country. This includes inspecting the air worthiness of planes, flight standards, personnel licensing and safety investigations. It is then up to airlines to comply with these standards to operate in the country.

Air Travel Rankings

There is no governmental, or inter-governmental, publication related to airline safety and assessment. The closest report produced by a government is U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which produces a yearly international assessment of which countries, in their opinion, have enough oversight of their airlines to comply with safety standards established by the ICAO. This, report, however does not assess, or recommend, the airlines that fly in those countries, only the regulatory framework they are, or aren’t subject to. This report also focuses heavily on whether international airlines may fly to the U.S. and less on individual regulation within other countries

In some countries where the U.S., UK, or European governments have diplomatic or donor missions the office of those missions will assess whether their employees can fly on certain airlines in the country. While this is a helpful benchmark, and should be investigated to provide guidance, it should not be confused with a 'blacklist' or the U.S., UK or European government's stance on a particular airline. These government's do not maintain a 'blacklist'. Rather, they have assessed which airlines are able to fly to the U.S., UK, or Europe and produce a list of these. Airlines which do not travel to those countries will not necessarily have been assessed.

There are also a number of different private systems of ranking related to air travel. Most of these relate either to airlines themselves or to airports. These ranking systems can be found online but the credibility of the ranking is left to the ranking organisation itself and has no global, or national, body behind it.'s rating system is the one that is most widely known and usually the basis for any media articles produced on airline ratings. It takes into account audits from aviation's governing bodies and airline associations, as well as government audits, the different airlines' fatality records and operational history.

Some other websites also offer informal/passenger ratings of airlines. These are very subjective and depending on individuals to relate and rank their own experience. Obviously, those who have had an upsetting, or unpleasant, experience are more likely to post to these sites. However, it can be informative if the subjective nature is borne in mind. Trip Advisor is one such website.

Air Travel Safety & Security

Globally, air travel has become much more prevalent and safe over the last few decades. Airlines globally carried 3.3 billion passengers on 27 million flights in 2014. Despite some high profile accidents in 2014, there were only 111 crashes in 2014 which was the lowest number since 1927 meaning that there was one fatal accident for every 1.3 million flights.

Each country will have a different number of air crashes each year depending on the number of airlines they have operating and it’s difficult to say what is a ‘high’ or ‘low’ number given the variables involved as any comparison must take into account the size of the country, the population, and the number of airlines operating.

In general, complaints about national airlines are usually related to the haphazard nature of the routes and delays to the published flight times rather than about the safety of airlines. Passenger flights are often delayed and/or cancelled due to weather concerns or scheduling issues. At times, as well the routes may be changed without much notice to passengers with additional stops being added. Additionally, safety requirements which people might be considered standard practice elsewhere and are always required on local carriers– such as remaining seated after the plane has landed until it reaches the final stop – are not always implemented.

How can an organisation make air travel decisions?

In the absence of any comprehensive public, third-party assessment of airlines it becomes important that each organisation assesses their air travel needs in parallel with the air travel options available to them. Despite fears of plane crashes due to the highly publicised nature of each occurrence, air travel remains a far safer means of travel than both road and rail.

While a lot of people will have opinions about what they like/dislike about an airline few people really know or understand what makes a plane, or flight, safe or unsafe. While the organisation's staff will have opinions about different airlines and this can be an important indicator a manager must be careful in basing airline selection on these as they tend to relate to comfort items (e.g. food quality/delays) rather than safety (e.g. plane maintenance).

If an organisation requires an airline assessment it is possible for the security manager to do so by finding out the answers to the following questions. Using these, and in discussion with well-travelled staff, different airlines may be assessed and recommended for use, or ranked for use. Obviously, this is an informal, rather than professional assessment. Some of the questions may only be answered by meeting with, and talking to an airline representative. Some may be answered by taking one of the airlines flights. The following is not a comprehensive list and each organisation might have other questions and concerns/requirements they would like to investigate.

  1. How long has the airline been operating and who is it owned by?

  2. What type of planes does the airline fly?

  3. How many planes does it have and how old are they?

  4. How are their planes maintained and how often?

  5. What is the safety record of the airline?

  6. What qualifications does the airline have reported to its personnel?

  7. What are the flight crew’s required ‘rest’ times?

  8. Does the airline fly at night?

  9. What is the operating environment of each airport to which the organisation would fly?

  • Are there mountains, other dangers/impediments in the area?

  • What are the runway conditions? Is it fenced? Is the perimeter patrolled by security?

  • What are the regular weather conditions throughout the year at that runways (e.g. heavy fog, high winds, and freezing conditions).

  1. How often are planes delayed or off-schedule on a certain route?

  2. Is the plane clean, seemingly well maintained?

  3. Are there safety/emergency instructions given to passengers?

  4. Are passengers conducted through the process (check-in, boarding, disembarking) in an organised manner?

  5. Does the luggage arrive in a timely way? Does it appear to be mishandled?

  6. What routes do the airline fly and are these often changed at short notice?

  7. Are common safety regulations followed in practice? (e.g. passengers seated during take-off/landing, seat belts used)

Security assessments in the areas where organisation staff would take off from and land are important as they might not have operations in those places. Knowing the security of the airport locations as well as routes to/from areas of operation is critical.

Even with this informal assessment it isn’t possible to fully assess an airline in most countries. Therefore, each organisation should carefully, and proactively, monitor the experience their staff have while utilising each airline and make sure to note problems as they arise. If a trend in problems becomes apparent the organisation can then make a decision against using that particular airline or route.

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