World's Safest Airlines
Travelers can find plenty of reasons to complain about airlines—except when it comes to safety.
“Air travel has become very safe in recent years,” says Ariel Beresniak of the Air Transport Rating Agency in Geneva. “The most important airlines have very high safety profiles.”
U.S. carriers with scheduled services have experienced just one fatal crash worldwide since 2006, according to the National Safety Transportation Board. And none of the 240 leading airlines incurred a crash last year, making 2012 the safest on record, according to the International Air Transport Association.
“The design, engineering, and technology that has gone into air travel and aircraft has really made a difference in making sure that travel by air is much safer,” says Kevin Hiatt, president and CEO of the D.C.-based Flight Safety Foundation. Beresniak feels the human element has also made the skies safer, in particular more efficient aviation organizations, airline operations, and air-traffic control performance.
In a recent study, Airlines for America compared the fatality rate per 100 million passenger miles among four major transport modes in the U.S. The verdict? Passengers are five times more likely to perish on a bus or train and 72 times more likely to die in a vehicle crash than while flying a commercial airline.
Yet Hiatt cautions that even the safest airlines should not rest on their laurels. “The one area we need to keep our eye on is complacency. We’ve got to make sure that we continue to enforce the procedures and practices that we have currently in place and be on the lookout for anything that we can mitigate to prevent future accidents.”
Some airlines have more work to do than others. And not all of the world’s regions are equal, either; many carriers in sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union still have disturbing safety records.
Travel + Leisure decided to find out which airlines are the safest of all by taking a Bowl Championship Series–like methodology (see full explanation below) that combines the two major global safety rankings with other critical factors to determine the top airline rankings.
Read on for the results—a comprehensive list of the world’s safest airlines.
We began by reviewing the latest global safety rankings from the Air Transport Rating Agency (ATRA) and the Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre (JACDEC). Both release annual rankings, but their methodologies vary and their results are often vastly different. Based in Switzerland, ATRA’s approach is based on aviation risk assessment and advanced data analyses. JACDEC, based in Germany, uses a number of factors to determine its annual calculations including hull loss accidents and serious incidents in the last 30 years of operations in relation to the revenue passenger kilometer (RPK) during the same time span.
T+L examined ATRA’s top 20 airlines and JACDEC’s top 60 airlines from 2012 and assigned point values for each placing. We then awarded extra points to any airlines with a clean slate of no fatal crashes or other incidents since 1970—and subtracted points for fatal incidents in the past five years. We gave a slight preference to airlines with the youngest fleets, based on Skytrax ratings.
No. 1 Lufthansa
Named after the medieval Hansa League, Germany’s longtime national airline was founded in the 1920s and relaunched after World War II. Lufthansa has since established an enviable safety record, while growing to a fleet of nearly 300 aircraft that serve more than 200 destinations.
No. 2 British Airways
BA’s safety record is especially commendable given how many different types of aircraft the company has flown since its 1974 launch, from Vickers Vanguard turboprops to Concorde supersonic jets. The airline even offers a modified version of its flight safety awareness training to the public (ebaft.com/fsa/fsa.htm).
No. 3 Qantas (tie)
Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) famously quipped in Rain Man that Qantas has never had an accident. That’s almost true: the Australian carrier hasn’t had a fatal crash since 1951. Founded in 1920 as the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services, the airline is known for its long-haul routes, from the Empire flying boats that once made the nine-day trip from London to Sydney to the Airbus 380, which undertakes the same trip in 23 hours.
No. 3 Southwest (tie)
Long a passenger favorite, Southwest has proven that a low-cost, no-frills airline can also excel when it comes to safety. One of the few large U.S. airlines that doesn’t charge for the first or second checked bag, the Texas-based carrier has a reputation for jolly cabin crew as well as innovative seating and boarding.
No. 5 Cathay Pacific
Started by a couple of fighter pilots who flew “The Hump” between Burma and China during World War II, Hong Kong’s airline has a rich and colorful history. Often ranked among the best for passenger experience and in-flight service, CX can also boast about its outstanding safety record.
No. 6 KLM
Founded in 1919, Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij is the world’s oldest continuously operating commercial carrier. Over the next few years, the Dutch carrier (now merged with Air France) will replace its entire fleet with brand-new aircraft, including the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
No. 7 Emirates
The Dubai-based carrier has logged only two accidents in its 28 years of operation. Always at the cutting edge of in-flight luxury, Emirates is renowned for its onboard showers, mini spa, lounge bar, and private “suites” with fully reclining sleeper seats.
No. 8 United/Continental
One of the largest mergers in aviation history, Chicago-based United and Houston-based Continental came together in 2010 to form one of the world’s largest airlines—more than 1,260 aircraft serving 370 destinations. While the two airlines have had to overcome some cultural differences, both share a reputation for safety.
No. 9 Delta
With 164 million passengers in 2012, Delta is the world’s single largest airline. The Atlanta-based airline’s safety record is even more impressive when you consider that Delta has more than 1.8 million flights each year.
No. 10 US Airways
One of the oldest American carriers, US Air traces its roots to 1939 and a small regional airline serving the Ohio River Valley. It has become a giant of aviation, with more than 600 planes serving 200 cities. In the past few years, new technology, employee incentives, and a system-wide customer service campaign have also improved the airline’s reputation in areas like baggage handling.
No. 11 Finnair
One of the world’s oldest commercial airlines, Finnair was founded in 1923 with a single seaplane on a route between Finland and Estonia. With just 44 aircraft, the Scandinavian carrier is still a minnow among the whales of international aviation. A recent design partnership with Marimekko adds to the airline’s distinctive appeal.
No. 12 Air Canada
From Whitehorse and Yellowknife in Canada’s frozen north to Rio, Singapore, and Paris, Air Canada is one of the world’s largest and most diverse airlines in terms of destinations.
No. 13 Etihad Airways
The youngest airline in our rankings, Etihad was established by a royal decree of the emir of Abu Dhabi in 2003. Massive aircraft purchases quickly built it into one of the Middle East’s largest and most profitable airlines. Advanced in-flight entertainment options make Etihad one of the most fun to fly.
No. 14 EVA Air
A spin-off of Evergreen, the sea transport and container giant, EVA is Taiwan’s second largest airline after China Airlines. With flights to more than 50 cities in Asia, Europe, and North America, EVA has never had a fatality or aircraft loss in its 24 years of service.
No. 15 Air France (tie)
Europe’s largest airline flies more than 250 planes to nearly 200 destinations worldwide. Although Air France made headlines for the loss of an Airbus off the coast of Brazil during a 2009 thunderstorm, its safety record is generally very good. That’s thanks in part to adjustments made after a safety review commissioned in 2009.
No. 15 Hainan Airways (tie)
Founded in 1989, China’s largest privately owned airline is home-based on tropical Hainan Island in the South China Sea. Passengers consistently rank Hainan as China’s best in-flight experience. The airline has expanded aggressively and now serves 90 cities on five continents.
No. 17 Air New Zealand
Consistently one of the world’s top airlines in service and customer satisfaction, the Kiwi carrier is also a winner when it comes to safety. It boasts a young fleet with features like cuddle class seating—an economy row of three seats that can convert to a bed.
No. 18 Iberia
Spain’s largest airline merged with British Airways in 2011 to form the International Airlines Group (IAG), the world’s third largest commercial airline entity. Iberia’s safety record has been stellar since the 1990s.
No. 19 All Nippon Airways
All Nippon (ANA) has come out of the shadow of JAL and grown into Japan’s largest airline with a fleet of more than 180 aircraft. Apart from an ANA 737 sliding off a snowy Japanese runway last year, the airline has had an excellent safety record since the early 1970s. It offers premium economy class and, on the new Dreamliner 787, women’s-only bathrooms with Japanese-style bidet toilets.
No. 20 JetBlue (tie)
This innovator in in-flight entertainment is also one of America’s safest airlines, with no injuries, fatalities, or aircraft losses during its 14 years of operation. The airline also gets kudos for seats with a 34-inch seat pitch, a first-bag-free policy, and complimentary animal crackers.
No. 20 Virgin Atlantic (tie)
Launched by billionaire Richard Branson in 1984, Virgin Atlantic soon became the trendy way to fly transatlantic. It quickly earned a reputation for personality and style, with seat-back video and amenity kits in every class and the introduction of economy plus seating. Virgin is now going strong with more than 40 aircraft.