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August 15, 2013

I’ve never heard of this airline. How do I know it’s safe?

by: Mary F. Schiavo

The easiest answer to that question is also the simplest: If you haven’t heard of the airline you are about to book, perhaps it’s better to step back and search for an airline you HAVE heard of. However, there are some places on earth where you simply can’t get on a main-line carrier from a developed nation. As you get ready to send your college students back to school or to that year abroad in a far flung corner of the earth, here are a few things to check out about that mystery carrier:

  • The age of the airplane and the code-share oversight
  • The country’s overall aviation safety reputation – making sure the airline has a Category 1 safety inspection rating.
  • Whether the airline has been banned in the European Union (see my previous blog about this subject)
  • Whether the FAA has fined the airline for safety violations

Find out the home country of the airline.

First of all, look at the aviation safety of the country which is home to the carrier. Every airline has a home country. In the industry, we call it their flag and it simply means the country in which they are registered as an air carrier. The number on their fuselage or tail, usually called the tail number, gives away the country of registration. For example, in the U.S., our tail number starts with an N, even though it isn’t on the tail, it is on the fuselage. Other countries have different letters or combinations of letters. For example, the registration numbers on planes in Pakistan start with AP, Austria starts with OE and Ukraine starts with UR—at least that one makes some sense. Australia, however, is VH. Who would have guessed that? You can find the list of nations’ letter prefixes on this website.

Review the safety inspection rating, and ensure that the airline has a Category 1 rating.

Once you know the country in which your airline is flagged, then you can review the FAA program called the International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) program. For this program, the FAA evaluates the safety inspection oversight of the flying nations of the world based on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) safety standards. ICAO standards are generally accepted minimums which airlines and nations should meet. If the nation’s safety meets the ICAO standards (which are somewhat comparable to the United States’ standards, because our standards are based on the ICAO standards), then that country receives a Category 1 rating. Most developed nations receive the Category 1 rating. A Category 2 rating means a country does not meet the ICAO standards. Under no circumstances should you get on an airplane from a country that has at Category 2 rating. There are only a handful of countries that do not meet ICAO standards, but a couple, in particular, deserve mention. These include: Indonesia with airlines such as Lion, CityLink and Garuda; the Philippines with airlines including Philippine Airlines and Cebu Airlines; and the Ukraine with Ukraine International Airlines. The list of countries and their safety assessment rating may be found on the FAA website.

Check out the list of banned carriers under the European Union.

The U.S. does not ban carriers per se, or at least does not publish who it bans, but the European Union (EU) does. The EU has a very extensive list of carriers that it deems unfit to fly in the European Union. Most of the carriers banned are from nations that do not receive a Category 1 rating under the IASA review discussed above, but there are a few exceptions. You may review EU list of banned carriers on the European Commission website.

Visit the U.S. DOT website to view unauthorized operations by airlines.

This will allow you to see if our government has determined that the airline (and in most cases, any charter operation) is engaged in unauthorized operations. They also have a section containing enforcement reports and actions, listing airlines that have committed bad acts and have been singled out by enforcement orders by the FAA. The list can be misleading because some well-known airlines end up on the list. Err on the side of safety. If you find a carrier on the list of recent or repeat offenders, select another carrier.

Make sure your aircraft has a strong safety track record.

While it is a generalization, usually newer planes have better air safety track records. When you make your reservation, try to select the newest plane you can get. A 747-400 is newer than a 747-200; so I would book the 400. And, if you have your choice between prop or jet, always take jet, because they have a better safety track record and perform better in bad weather. Always say no to any Russian plane as the service and parts provisioning for those planes is far from assured, no matter where they’re flying.

Check to see if the airline code shares with any U.S. carriers.

This information may give you the safest clue of all because U.S. carriers are required to evaluate the safety of any foreign carrier onto which they code share their passengers and seek U.S. DOT approval for their code shares. By doing so, you may assume that some U.S. airline has at least looked to see, even if only on paper, that they meet the standards of modern aviation. The most financially secure way to book international flights, even if on a foreign carrier, is from the U.S., on a U.S. credit card, through a U.S. carrier that code shares you onto the foreign carrier. Additionally, make sure your trip segments are all ticketed together. This is important for many reasons because you will have:

  • The assistance of the U.S. carrier, mandated by Federal laws that apply only to U.S. carriers, in the event you have difficulties in your travel, difficulties with your travel document or an accident
  • The assurance of a U.S. carrier and U.S. financial regulations to protect you in the event of a bankruptcy of a carrier or other mishap
  • The assurance that the U.S. carrier has reviewed the foreign carrier and gotten the approval of the DOT
  • The assurance that your tickets are booked straight through as continuous travel under U.S. law, which can become very, very important if there is an accident, because U.S. law will apply to you

With a little online research into your airline carrier, you can have more information to help you choose.