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With recent crashes getting so much media coverage, it’s easy to be scared into believing that air travel is getting more dangerous. However, statistics reflect that air travel remains incredibly safe.
In 2015, there were 560 airliner accident fatalities from 16 fatal airliner accidents. Of the 16, only five accidents resulted in more than 10 deaths — including three that received wall-to-wall media coverage: Metrojet 9268, Germanwings 9525 and TransAsia 235.
While each of these accidents was tragic and troubling, 2015 proved to be the “safest year ever” according to the Aviation Safety Network. Since 1945, there have never been fewer fatal airliner accidents, and 2015 was the year with the fifth-lowest number of total fatalities. It’s not an exaggeration to say that flying has never been safer than it is today.
That said, there’s a certain comfort in stepping on board an airline that has never had a major accident (or at least not in a long time). So, we dug into the aviation archives to find the airlines with the best safety records.
Qantas‘ safety record is so famous that it was the counterpoint to the statement “All airlines have crashed at one time or another” in the 1988 movie Rain Man. In the 28 years since the movie, Qantas has retained its perfect record.
Now, technically Qantas hasn’t had a perfect record. Qantas has had 12 fatal crashes in its history, including two shoot-downs during World War II. That said, all of the crashes occurred before 1952 and involved propeller-driven aircraft.
Since then, Qantas has had a stellar safety record: no accident fatalities and no “hull loss” accidents — when the aircraft is damaged beyond economic repair. This is a incredible safety record for an airline that currently carries nearly 50 million passengers per year.
Not only has Qantas had a flawless record for more than 64 years, but it’s also the reigning “world’s safest airline” for the third year running.
Here in the US, our gold standard is Hawaiian Airlines. Hawaiian Airlines — originally named Inter-Island Airways — has been in continuous operations since 1929 and has yet to have a single fatal accident or hull loss. This makes it the oldest US carrier to maintain this perfect record.
This feat is incredible, especially when you consider how many crashes occurred during the decades of early aviation. While flying was glamorous in that time period, it was far from safe. Yet, through that entire period, Hawaiian Airlines safely operated its fleet. Even through financial troubles that led to two bankruptcies (1993 and 2003), the airline never compromised on safety.
Hawaiian’s dedication to safety has earned it a well-deserved spot in AirlineRatings.com’s top 20 safest airlines for 2016. In 2015, the carrier safely delivered 10.7 million passengers to their destinations.
Another US-based carrier with an excellent safety record is JetBlue. Despite a couple of widely reported landing gear-related incidents, JetBlue retains a clean slate; the airline hasn’t even tallied a single serious injury from an incident during its 16-year history.
JetBlue made AirlineRating.com’s list of the top 10 safest low-cost carriers worldwide and ranks No. 11 on JACDEC’s safest airlines — the highest ranking of any US-based airline.
In 2015, JetBlue operated more than 316,000 flights, safely delivering more than 35 million revenue passengers.
And, there’s nothing to indicate that this record is in danger, as all three rank in the list of safest airlines for 2016.
In 2015, the three airlines combined to safely deliver more than 35 million passengers across five continents.
Regional US Airlines: ExpressJet, Republic Airlines, Shuttle America, Mesa Airlines
Regional airlines are essential to serving smaller destinations for larger, mainline airlines. Despite employing less-experienced pilots, there are a few larger regional airlines that have notable safety records:
- ExpressJet Airlines (2015: 26 million passengers, founded in 1979, 401 aircraft, operating as American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express)
- Republic Airlines & Shuttle America (2015: 22 million passengers, founded in 1973, 241 aircraft, operating as American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express)
- Mesa Airlines (founded in 1980, 133 aircraft, operating as American Eagle and United Express)
*Excluding airlines with fewer than 100 aircraft.
Ultra-Low Cost Carriers: Frontier, Spirit, Allegiant
Although it ranks among the bottom in customer satisfaction, Frontier currently maintains a perfect 7-star safety rating from Airline Ratings and has yet to have a serious accident in its 22-year history.
On the other end of the spectrum, Allegiant Airlines has recently experienced a number of incidents. A recent survey of Allegiant pilots (PDF) indicates some serious concerns about pilot fatigue and overscheduling, and the president of the pilot’s union reports that “Almost half of the pilots said they will not allow their own families to fly on the aircraft.” So, Allegiant is an airline where — as they say — “past performance is not necessarily a predictor of future results.”
Spirit Airlines is somewhere in the middle. Over the past couple of years, Spirit has experienced a few airborne maintenance incidents, and the airline lacks an optional IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) certification. However, Spirit has kept an accident-free record with an ever-growing passenger base. In 2015 alone, Spirit safely delivered nearly 18 million passengers — a 25% increase from 2014.
International Low-Cost Carriers: Ryanair and EasyJet
When you hear “low-cost carrier,” you might wonder if part of the savings might come from skimping on maintenance. As is the case with the US ultra-low cost carriers mentioned above, you might be pleased to learn both Ryanair and EasyJet haven’t had a fatality.
In fact, the worst incident I could find on either airline was an emergency landing required by a Ryanair flight after experiencing multiple bird strikes — the same cause of the “Miracle on the Hudson.” Although the plane was damaged beyond economic repair, there were just ten minor injuries from the incident.
From 2011-2015, Ryanair safety delivered nearly 400 million passengers on 2.5 million flights, while in 2015 EasyJet flew 68.6 million passengers.
The so-called “Middle East Three” (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar) have retained safety records free of any major accidents. Each of the three airlines has experienced a potential disaster — from striking an object on takeoff to extreme turbulence — during the recent past, but each was able to avoid a major incident.
And, there’s no reason to suspect that this will change. All three airlines make it into the top 8 of the JACDEC Airline Safety Ranking (No. 2 Emirates, No. 4 Qatar, No. 8 Etihad). Also, Emirates and Etihad are both in AirlineRating.com’s list of the top 20 safest airlines for 2016.
During 2015, Emirates boarded 51.9 million passengers and Etihad carried 17.4 million passengers. Qatar Airways hasn’t released its 2015 passenger traffic publicly.
Other International Airlines
There are dozens of other commercial airlines worldwide that have maintained a fatality-free safety record. Rather than listing them all, here are the airlines that both have a clean slate (at least in the past 50 years) and are ranked in the top 20 of either AirlineRatings.com’s or JACDEC’s 2016 safety ranking list:
- Air Berlin (founded 1978)
- EVA Air (founded 1989)
- Finnair (*1963 crash under the airline’s former “Aero” name)
- Hainan Airlines (founded 1993)
- Swiss International Air Lines (founded 2002)
- WestJet (founded 1996)
Despite recent high-profile accidents, air travel is statistically safer than ever before. There’s no evidence that airlines like Malaysia or Germanwings are any less safe. But, if you’d prefer to travel on an airline that has maintained a clean safety record, there’s a long list of airlines to choose from!
Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The original version of this article from June 2016 noted that Southwest Airlines had a perfect safety record for more than 49 years. However, as a result of the Southwest flight 1380 accident on April 17, 2018, the airline has incurred its first passenger fatality as a result of an accident. This ended the Dallas-based airline’s 50+ year perfect streak, and marks the first death of a passenger due to an accident on a US airline since 2009.