IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Air safety: Flying into the unknown

Air travel in North America and Western Europe has never been safer, but a recent spate of accidents has aviation experts sounding a warning in many other regions. Barbara S. Peterson investigates the risks of flying unfamiliar airlines in increasingly popular destinations.
Image: Airplane crash in Congo
A cargo plane crashed into three homes in Congo's capital seconds after takeoff on Oct. 5, 2007, killing at least 25 people and cutting a path of destruction through a poor neighborhood.John Bompengo / AP file
/ Source: Condé Nast Traveler

Air travel in North America and Western Europe has never been safer, but a recent spate of accidents has aviation experts sounding a warning in many other regions. Barbara S. Peterson investigates the risks of flying unfamiliar airlines in increasingly popular destinations.

On a rain-soaked day last July, a TAM Airlines A320 landing at São Paulo's Congonhas Airport ran off the runway and crashed into a cargo building after skidding across a busy traffic artery; 199 people were killed in the accident, making it the worst aviation disaster in Brazil's history. A month later, I am standing near the crash site, where all that remains is a pile of rubble in an abandoned lot across from the airport. What's most striking about the scene is that Congonhas, Brazil's busiest domestic airport, is smack in the middle of a thriving business and residential quarter in the largest metropolis in South America. It's as if LaGuardia Airport were a few steps from Canal Street.

After the crash, it was widely reported that the São Paulo attorney general's office had tried to close the airport to large jets over concerns that its inefficient runway drainage system put both passengers and residents at risk. An appeals judge overturned the order. I'm in Brazil to see firsthand what has been labeled the country's "aviation crisis" by media commentators and consumer watchdogs in South America and elsewhere. TAM and Gol, two airlines that have seen recent dramatic growth, have each suffered a fatal crash in the past year. In September 2006, a Gol 737 collided with an Embraer Legacy corporate jet in midair over the Amazonian rain forest in clear skies with no other air traffic; all 154 passengers aboard the Gol flight perished, while the 7 aboard the corporate jet survived. Brazil has criminally charged the two American pilots of the Embraer Legacy, alleging reckless flying, and at press time was trying them in absentia; several air-traffic controllers who were on duty at the time of the crash face similar charges.

The state of air travel in Brazil is so problematic—recent air-traffic-control breakdowns, controller work slowdowns, and the removal of top aviation officials have only compounded the troubles—that the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents the majority of the world's carriers, said in August that Brazil has "serious safety deficiencies." Antonio R. Lorenzo, a spokesman for the Brazilian Air Force, which oversees aviation safety, says that accidents have decreased dramatically over the past 17 years, even as the number of aircraft has increased. Nonetheless, in 2006, the accident rate for Brazilian airlines was 3.5 times higher than the rate for Latin American carriers overall. Yet when I meet an American businessman who flies often out of Congonhas to Rio and Brasília, he is unfazed by the controversy. "What am I going to do, drive?" he jokes.

His is an attitude shared by many Americans who often have no choice but to fly unfamiliar airlines in countries whose aviation safety records are largely unknown to the general public. While flight safety in North America and Western Europe has never been better and continues to improve, the same is not true in some other regions. Statistics compiled by the U.K. aviation consultancy Ascend, in an exclusive report for Condé Nast Traveler, show that Africa, with just 4 percent of air traffic worldwide, had 30 percent of the fatal crashes over the past five years. During the same period, Russia and the other countries that once made up the Soviet Union recorded one fatality for every 424,000 passengers; in North America, the rate was one fatality for every 38 million passengers. The September crash of an aircraft belonging to a Thai budget airline, as well as a series of fatal accidents in Indonesia, have raised fears that some Asian countries may not be adequately monitoring their rash of upstart carriers. (See "Upstart Airlines")

This safety gap is leading to an unprecedented push to force countries to open up sensitive safety files for inspection. In fact, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations affiliate based in Montreal, has given its 190 member nations until next spring to post safety audit results on its public Web site. The ultimate impact of this order remains uncertain, since ICAO lacks enforcement powers, but officials say that countries who refuse to participate will be conspicuous by their absence. "Their silence will speak volumes—it will send a clear message that they have something to hide," says an official who asked not to be named. As of September, some 80 countries had agreed to release at least some safety information. "Sovereign countries have a right to look under the covers anyplace they have airline service," says William Voss, chief of the Flight Safety Foundation in Washington, D.C. "The best thing the international community can do is apply economic pressure on the countries and carriers that need to improve."

The birth of the blacklist
The turning point in the fight for increased transparency came in 2004 with the crash of a Paris-bound Flash Airlines flight from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. All 148 passengers and crew were killed. In 2002, the Swiss government had banned the Egyptian charter carrier from its airspace because of a variety of safety infractions, but its list of 23 banned carriers was classified and was therefore unknown to the mostly French travelers on board. The subsequent outrage over the secrecy led to a call for a European-wide ban on unsafe airlines, a list that would be available to the public. Several accidents in 2005, one of the worst years in the past decade for air safety, only ratcheted up the pressure.

In March 2006, just as the European community was finalizing its blacklist, ICAO adopted a policy requiring member nations to open their safety files. The move was opposed by a coalition of virtually all South American countries (which backed down at the last minute) and a bloc of African nations. In the words of one Gambian representative, it would "kill our tourism industry and our airlines." The ICAO chief at the time, Assad Kotaite, was unmoved, although he did give countries two years to comply. "The world will not forgive us if we do not act," he said.

While outright bans on carriers are rare, the FAA has, since the early 1990s, periodically dispatched teams of inspectors to nations whose airlines fly (or intend to fly) to the United States. The FAA then places the countries in one of two groups: Category 1, meaning they are in compliance with minimum standards set by ICAO, or Category 2, which means they fall below the mark. Recently, the agency downgraded Indonesia to Category 2 after a series of fatal accidents that culminated in the March crash of a Garuda Airlines plane in which 22 died; the European, however, Union took a stronger stance and banned all of Indonesia's carriers from flying to an EU country. The Indonesian government has protested that it wasn't given a fair hearing.

The United States rarely bans airlines, but it doesn't allow those from Category 2 countries to increase the number of flights they make into the U.S. or to launch service. (No Indonesian carriers currently fly into the country.) The FAA says its approach is as effective as the EU ban, explaining that it gives countries a strong economic incentive to shape up. The FAA currently lists 20 Category 2 nations, including Belize, Gambia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay; two years ago, there were 34 countries on the watch list. The fact that 14 countries (including Argentina, Greece, and Guatemala) were subsequently upgraded suggests that there's a motivational aspect to the policy.

In interviews with a dozen safety officials and members of pilot and air-traffic controller organizations, we identified the most pressing safety issues today and some remedies currently being considered:

From the cockpit
A worldwide analysis by ICAO over a recent six-year period showed that the leading cause of fatal accidents is human error: Most crashes were caused by either "loss of control in flight" or "controlled flight into terrain" (CFIT)—aviation-speak for flying a perfectly good plane into the ground (or water). Terrain awareness systems are available to warn against CFIT and are required in aircraft flown by U.S. and EU airlines, but many other countries do not require them. None of the planes in the five 2006 crashes determined to be caused by CFIT were equipped with the technology.

Pilot skills—and a looming shortage of experienced pilots—are of increasing concern. In several recent crashes, cultural issues or language barriers have had fatal consequences. A National Transportation Safety Board report on the 2004 Flash Airlines crash pinned the blame on the captain, saying he was likely experiencing spatial disorientation when the plane spun out of control and dove into the water shortly after takeoff; the investigators also implied that the co-pilot was apparently discouraged from challenging his superior. The Egyptian government has strenuously rejected these conclusions. Nonetheless, poorly trained or inexperienced pilots have been a factor in numerous accidents, according to Flight Safety Foundation statistics.

English is the lingua franca of the aviation industry, yet many pilots aren't fluent enough to prevent misunderstandings with air-traffic control or other pilots. Dmitry Tarasevich, a director of Moscow's Flight Safety Foundation, an affiliate of the Washington-based group, acknowledges that the language barrier can have dire consequences. In 1996, when a Saudi Arabian Airlines 747 collided with a Kazakh cargo jet near New Delhi, the investigation revealed that one of the Kazakh pilots had misunderstood instructions from the air-traffic controller. Tarasevich has led an effort to train Russian pilots by sending them to an English-language institute in the United Kingdom. In China, where only about 600 of the roughly 9,000 international pilots recently met the ICAO's standards for fluency in English; a similar push is on for intensive language lessons.

Pilot training facilities are another trouble spot identified by analysts. In Russia, after the collapse of the USSR, the main pilot schools shut down for much of the 1990s. "For ten years, we produced almost no pilots," says Ascend's Boris Bychov. "Now we are seeing the consequences." The schools are back in business, and in barely a decade, the country made the transition from a single state-run airline to more than 170 carriers. But as iJet analyst Alex Bobilev puts it, "it is as if we lost an entire generation of pilots."

Pilots' groups have also raised concerns about a "brain drain" that is causing a shortage of qualified pilots in poorer nations in Asia and Africa. "Once these pilots get fully trained, they're poached" by Western airlines or by expanding carriers in the oil-rich Middle East, says Paul McCarthy, of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations (IFALPA). The shortage is expected to worsen as airlines take delivery of some 1,800 jets in the next 18 months. "Filling those cockpits with unqualified pilots would introduce a huge risk," McCarthy warns.

Potential fixes
Under an ICAO initiative, all commercial pilots flying international routes, as well as all controllers who interact with them, are expected to be fluent in English by March 2008. However, many countries are expected to miss that deadline, according to safety sources. All planes should be equipped with collision warning systems, and most safety experts believe that more openness in reporting problems should be encouraged, allowing pilots and others to come forward to report any dangers. In some countries, however, the trend seems to be moving in the opposite direction, notes McCarthy, whose pilots' group has protested the criminal trial of the U.S. pilots in Brazil. Air-traffic controllers are also alarmed: "Jailing and a regime of fear [could] lead to safety information not being reported by everyone in the aviation safety chain," warns Marc Baumgartner, president of the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Associations in Montreal.

Runway dangers
IFALPA estimates that hundreds of airports around the world have runway safety issues ranging from challenging terrain to lack of barriers to prevent planes from straying out of bounds. The problem is that many airports built when propeller planes were the norm are now buckling under the strain of far more traffic—and larger planes—than they were designed to handle.

At São Paulo's Congonhas Airport, for instance, the main runway is 6,300 feet long, several hundred feet shorter than those of comparable domestic airports in the United States. Congonhas is also hemmed in by tall buildings that complicate the approach, according to several pilots who fly to South America often. One source at a leading security firm says that he knows of several international companies that have put the airport on a no-fly list for their employees.

The runway safety problem is, however, a universal one: In the aftermath of a 2005 Air France crash at Toronto Airport in which everyone was evacuated, safety advocates pointed out that the airport had not installed the runway barriers they had been recommending for years. The United States has had its own string of runway disasters, including the 2005 crash of a Southwest Airlines 737 at Chicago's Midway Airport in which one person on the ground was killed.

Potential fixes
IFALPA has called for all airports to be equipped with at least one thousand-foot runway overrun area. At older facilities that may not have adequate space for longer safety strips, the pilots have recommended installing an area of light, crushed concrete to slow planes. Meanwhile, controllers and pilots are pushing for installation of anticollision technology at airports that would warn the cockpit of an impending fender-bender—a move that has been advocated in the United States for years and which would help reduce an alarming rise in the number of near misses at airports.

Air-traffic control
Most fliers are unaware that wide swaths of the world, including the oceans and most of sub-Saharan Africa, are without radar coverage. On transoceanic flights, well-established safety procedures are in place, and pilot groups say they are trained to fly without radar under most conditions. But, they note, problems can arise in areas with high traffic.

While the situation in Brazil has been in the news since the midair crash last year, in part due to the country's air-traffic-controller union's publicizing what it says are unsafe work conditions, neighboring Argentina is experiencing a similar air-traffic-control crisis. The country has had no crashes to draw the world's attention, but according to its air-controllers organization, five "near misses" were reported during a two-month period in which a major radar center was temporarily closed after a lightning strike. "Aviation safety in Argentina and surrounding areas has been seriously compromised," a group representing international controllers said in a statement, accusing the Argentinian government of "disrespect for the traveling public."

"The fact that South America's two largest countries are sounding the alarm is troubling," says the Flight Safety Foundation's Voss.

In Brazil and Argentina, commercial air traffic is under the control of the armed forces, a vestige of the days when the countries themselves were run by the military. A transition to civilian control is under way in Argentina, and the Brazilian government may soon follow suit. However, it's unclear how long this will take and whether the more serious problems of spotty radar and understaffed towers will be addressed. In both countries, the military, meanwhile, is in charge of investigating accidents and incidents—a clear conflict of interest, observers say.

Potential fixes
Many countries are moving directly to a GPS-based air-traffic-control system, bypassing ground-based radar altogether. The new system routes communications among pilots and controllers through satellites, allowing pilots to "see" all planes within several hundred miles. For Africa, in particular, the switch could potentially save many lives.

Interim measures include equipping more planes with a Traffic Collision Alert and Avoidance System, or TCAS, that acts as a sort of horn, sending out an electronic pulse to warn pilots when they are on a collision course with another aircraft, often with only seconds to spare.

Shoddy maintenance
Poor aircraft maintenance and counterfeit parts are emerging as a major concern, according to the Flight Safety Foundation. When I visited Moscow last July, police had just busted a criminal ring of parts counterfeiters, and in September, inspections of aircraft in the fleets of Aeroflot and Rossiya airlines turned up stolen and bogus parts, according to news reports from Moscow. The situation is made worse by the apparent professionalism of the perpetrators.

According to Alex Bobilev of iJet, "The documentation and seals on the parts looked like the real thing," leading to the conclusion that many of the culprits must have previously worked in the airframe industry. Safety experts also point to a larger issue: the increasing outsourcing of maintenance and the shortage of trained inspectors. "Good airlines will usually try and do the right thing, but some airlines will try to bend the rules. Just how closely are [the airlines] watching when they send their engines halfway around the world?" says McCarthy. Several recent incidents have raised red flags, including one in which a Qantas plane returned from an offshore facility with wiring problems. Qantas said it had rectified the problem, which "did not compromise the safety of the aircraft in any way."

The outlook
In late September, ICAO announced a five-year plan to reduce global accident rates and drastically narrow the safety gap between the regions with the best and the worst records. Are these reasonable goals? With the crash in mid-September of the One-Two-Go aircraft in Phuket, the fatality numbers for 2007 totaled 653—in line with the annual average for the past ten years. This sobering figure suggests that there's still much to be done.

"People talk about how much it will cost to make safety improvements," says IFALPA's Gideon Ewers. "But we want people instead to think of the huge cost to an airline, and to the public as a whole, each time a plane crashes."

Rundown on recent accidents
Fatal crashes on scheduled flights this year, through September

Determining the factors that lead to an airplane crash often takes years. The causes of each of the following are still under investigation.

Jan. 1, 2007
Airline: Adam Air
Crash site: Java Sea near Sulawesi, Indonesia
Fatalities: All 102 on board. The Boeing 747-400 crashed into the sea during a domestic flight from Surabaya to Manado.

March 7, 2007
Airline: Garuda Indonesia Airways
Crash site: Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Fatalities: Twenty-one of the 140 on board. The Boeing 737-400, on a domestic flight from Jakarta, approached the runway too fast, overran it, and caught fire in a rice paddy.

March 17, 2007
Airline: UTAir
Crash site: Samara, Russia
Fatalities: Six of the 57 on board. The Tupolev 134, on a domestic flight from Surgut to Belgorod via Samara, undershot the runway at Samara during a storm, causing the left wing to break off. Officials found that poor weather conditions were not communicated to the crew, who attempted to land without the aid of approach lights.

May 5, 2007
Airline: Kenya Airways
Crash site: Douala, Cameroon
Fatalities: All 114 on board. The new Boeing 737-800, on a flight from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to Nairobi via Douala, nose-dived into a swamp less than a minute after takeoff from Douala.

June 25, 2007
Airline: PMT Air
Crash site: Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Fatalities: All 22 on board. The Antonov AN-24, on a flight from Siem Reap, crashed into a mountain at a height of 1,640 feet while on descent into Sihanoukville.

June 28, 2007
TAAG Angola Airlines
Crash site: M'Banza Congo, Angola
Fatalities: Five of the 78 on board and one on the ground. The Boeing 737-200, on a domestic flight from Luanda to M'Banza, overshot the runway on landing and crashed into two buildings.

July 17, 2007
TAM Linhas Aéreas
Crash site: São Paulo, Brazil
Fatalities: All 187 on board and 12 on the ground. The Airbus A320, on a domestic flight from Porto Alegre to São Paulo, overran the runway and crashed into a building.

Aug. 9, 2007
Air Moorea
Crash site: Moorea, French Polynesia
Fatalities: All 20 on board. Air Moorea has shuttle service between Moorea and Tahiti. The Twin Otter crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff from Moorea.

Sept. 16, 2007
One-Two-GO by Orient Thai
Crash site: Phuket, Thailand
Fatalities: Eighty-nine of the 130 on board. The McDonnell Douglas MD-82, on a domestic flight from Bangkok to Phuket, crashed while landing in driving rain and wind. At press time, wind shear was being investigated as a possible cause. — Alex Pasquariello

Blacklists and mixed messages
Official guidance on airline safety can sometimes confuse more than help

It stands to reason that the airline watch lists issued by various governments and aviation watchdogs would be consistent with one another: Virtually all of these groups—from the FAA to the International Air Transport Association (IATA)—report that they hew to the same criteria set by the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the de facto last word in aviation safety standards.

But reality proves far less tidy. Consider the following:

  • Pakistan International Airlines, perhaps the most prominent carrier on the European Union's airline blacklist (its 777s, 747s, and A310s are exempt), has nonetheless successfully completed the rigorous safety audit required for membership in IATA, which accounts for 94 percent of all passenger and cargo traffic. To further confuse matters: The FAA ranks Pakistan as Category 1, meaning that, overall, the country conforms to the highest safety standards.
  • Ukraine is ranked as Category 2, or below par, by the FAA; and two of its airlines—Volare and Ukrainian-Mediterranean—were banned by the EU this year. Nonetheless, Ukraine's largest carrier, Aerosvit, has successfully passed the stringent IATA safety audit and has an operating certificate from the FAA, which is required of all foreign carriers that land in the United States.
  • Indonesia's recent rash of accidents drew swift sanctions from the EU, which has banned all of the country's airlines, and the FAA, which designated it as Category 2. But several other nations that have had a string of crashes, including Brazil and Russia, are rated as Category 1 by the FAA, which has not assessed either country since 2001.
  • These apparent inconsistencies have prompted some companies to rely on their own research. Bruce McIndoe, chief executive of iJet, a Maryland-based safety and security consultancy, says that the company began doing its own due diligence on airlines when the EU made its blacklist public in 2006. "Our travel agent clients told us that there was a potential liability concern if they booked someone on an airline that was blacklisted," he says, noting that iJet consults on some 12 million travel itineraries per year. According to McIndoe, his company regularly vets more than 300 carriers for its clients, and has placed about 80 on a "non-preferred" list. Many of these, he says, are obscure airlines used mainly by relief workers or NGOs in war zones. "We want to let our customers know when a carrier has planes that are held together by quick fixes—that way, they can reconsider their plans."
  • Short of hiring a security company to review an itinerary, what can travelers do to avoid airlines with questionable—or downright terrible—safety records? First, look for carriers that have voluntarily submitted to IATA's rigorous safety audits (most airline alliances and code-share partnerships now make this a pre-condition of admission). Second, refer to the European Union's roster of blacklisted airlines. Third, check out the Web sites listed in "Safety First" for information on recent accident reports, carrier safety records, and other data to help you make informed choices. — B.S.P.

Upstart airlines
Are new carriers any less safe?

When a One-Two-Go flight from Bangkok crashed in Phuket in September, killing 89, it was a sobering reminder that safety monitoring in Asia and elsewhere may not be keeping pace with the rapid growth of upstart carriers. While it is far too soon to speculate on the causes of the Phuket accident, the early details had a familiar ring: a new airline and an attempt to land a 24-year-old plane in poor weather conditions. The Thai crash also revived memories of the defunct budget carrier Phuket Airlines, which was banned by the U.K. and France after a series of safety lapses in 2005. It later stopped flying due to financial troubles.

Safety experts point out that there's no reason to believe that newcomer carriers are any less safe than those that are established. In fact, many—such as India's Kingfisher—are well financed and fly new aircraft. But experts do note that evaluating the safety record of a new airline is difficult because there's little to go on.

Russia's track record with new carriers has also raised concerns: The country recently cracked down on some of its upstarts, banning or restricting nine for safety violations. The EU had also threatened to ban one of the higher-profile Russian airlines, Pulkovo, which suffered a crash in 2006 and whose safety practices had been deemed lacking by European inspectors. In the end, the EU took no action against Pulkovo; the carrier has since merged with Rossiya Airlines.

So what is a consumer to do? Experts advise looking at the average age of the fleet (younger is better) and at how long the company has been in business (even a two-year-old carrier has a more established safety record than a brand-new one). For a list of Web sites to help you with your research, see "Safety First". When information is scarce, Alex Bobilev, an expert on Russia with global security consultant iJet, has his own rule of thumb: "I'm not saying new airlines aren't safe, but if you want assurance, go with the brand name."

Safety first
Best resources for airline safety records

Data on fatal accidents organized by airline, country, and year can be found on this Web site run by aviation safety expert Todd Curtis, a former airline safety analyst with Boeing and the author of Understanding Aviation Safety Data.

The Web site of the Aviation Safety Network, part of the respected Flight Safety Foundation, tracks major airline accidents and serious incidents.

The European Union's list of banned or restricted airlines is updated several times a year.

The FAA's International Aviation Safety Assessment grades countries as Category 1, meaning they meet standards set forth by the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), or Category 2, meaning they don't. While it doesn't list individual airlines, you can assume that carriers operating from a Category 2 country aren't getting proper scrutiny.

The International Air Transport Association Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) evaluates the operational management and control systems of individual carriers. Click on "IOSA Registry" for a list of all the member airlines that have passed. Not all airlines belong to IATA, however, and small domestic carriers may not be covered.

ICAO's Web site is an excellent resource, with links to an extensive list of governmental and nongovernmental aviation Web pages. Click on "Publications" to download current and past issues of the dense-but-informative ICAO Journal.