THE BLOG

A Wing and a Prayer: The World's Safest Airlines

09/06/2013 03:39 pm ET | Updated Nov 06, 2013

It's been a bad few months for the airline industry. The crash of Asiana Flight and the nose-gear collapse on Southwest Flight 345 sent a collective shudder through travelers. There is something about falling out of the sky that strikes our nightmare nerve, whether it is the loss of our individual control, allusions to Icarus, or the fact that tabloids cannot recycle enough a story involving death, destruction, and flying body parts. They were sad end-points in their way -- until these two incidents, the 240 passenger airlines that compose the industry were enjoying one of the longest "safe periods" on record.

But when I was talking with a friend not to long ago, the subject of Asiana came up. "The Koreans?" he asked, agape, and then gravely shook his head. Clearly this man had heard the annoyingly pervasive myth that Korean carriers throw safety out the window, neverminding the fact that Asiana had only two fatal crashes in the last 20 years, and Korean Air hasn't had one since 1999. Still, it wasn't too much of a stretch to say this man wasn't heading to Seoul anytime soon unless somebody built a bridge.

The conversation made me think about a favorite talking point for the travel industry: What are the safest planes to fly? "Any landing you can walk away from is a good one" is the saying. Statistically speaking, air travel is the safest means of transportation in history if one measures the amount of passengers that use it compared to those that die because of it. Such thinking made Teddy Roosevelt famously state "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics," but pile those facts and figures up and they can soothe even the most nervous of fliers.

The question of "the safest" is not an easy question to answer, since different critics look at different criteria. "Dangerous" does not mean "deadly" or even "crash-prone." Statistics compiled by various governmental bodies look at all incidents an airline experiences in a year, but give different weight to different incidents. Just to really make it confusing, many rating agencies see airlines and low-cost airlines as two different beasts, and will not include one in the other's most-safe list. Just because you can't find your favorite airline doesn't mean it isn't safe; you may be looking on the wrong list.

Chillingly, it is inevitable that some vehicle of mass transportation is at one point going to fail spectacularly; the Titanic proved that iron was never meant to float. No airline is accident-free. Every single one has had something go wrong at one point, even if it is a flat tire. Nevertheless, there are several airlines out there that have particularly sterling reputations when it comes to safety. AirlineRatings.com makes it easy on all of us and flatly states British Airways, Flybe, and Virgin Atlantic as the safest in the air. Just to prove that not everybody is looking at the same equations, however, Travel + Leisure recently released their own list, giving nods to Lufthansa, British Airways, and Qantas (the latter of course being immortalized by Dustin Hoffman's Raymond Babbit in Rain Man for never having a fatality, an honor the carrier still holds). Of the low-cost carriers, JetBlue gets top marks.

Much easier to find are those airlines you should not fly. AirlineRatings goes the extra mile and provides the names of those airlines that are the most dangerous: Lion Air (Indonesia), Air India Express, and Yeti Airlines (Nepal) are summed up as the airborne equivalent of Russian roulette. You name it, they have it: crashes, pilot error, poor maintenance, out-of-date equipment, corrupt officials and lots and lots of other reasons to search Expedia a little more thoroughly. The European Commission rates carriers on an airline-by-airline basis and bans some 270 carriers (mostly cargo) outright from getting anywhere near the continent; it made big news this year when Philippine Air was removed from the blacklist. The Federal Aviation Administration rates not by airlines but by country, yet the agency's website is curiously far more stingy with its information on banned airlines. It took some searching, but I found an obsolete list (it mentions "Serbia & Montenegro," which has not existed since 2006) of carriers from 22 nations forbidden from approaching American airspace.

But as a frequent traveler, and travel planner, here is where I stick my neck out for Asiana. It goes without saying that Asiana's record is severely dented (even as the carrier should be praised; for a major crash to incur only one fatality is to be rightly celebrated, as should the valor of the crew) but the fact remains that AirlineRatings, if they are any judge, puts Asiana in the same tier as Qantas. How Asiana will rate after Flight 214 isn't my call, and the investigation by the National Transportation and Safety Board is ongoing, but I, for one, will happily board the next Asiana flight out.