How do you measure airline safety?

Simon Calder
·4-min read
<p>Safe bets: the view from a Ryanair plane of easyJet tailfins at Gatwick airport</p> (Simon Calder)

Safe bets: the view from a Ryanair plane of easyJet tailfins at Gatwick airport

(Simon Calder)

Rarely do airlines brag about their safety record. But last month at a tourism event in Sydney, Jo Boundy, chief marketing officer for Qantas, said many people regard the Australian airline as the safest in the world.

They certainly do – especially the website AirlineRatings.com, which once again awarded Qantas safest airline in the world in its 2021 ratings.

The Perth-based organisation said: “Australia’s Qantas has been recognised by the British Advertising Standards Association [sic] in a test case as the world’s most experienced airline.”

That title was established in a big row that took place 13 years ago. In 2008, a Qantas ad asserted that it was “the world’s most experienced airline” because it had “flown continuously for over 87 years”.

“That’s longer than any other airline and it shows in our customer service and operational excellence,” was the Qantas interpretation.

Several people complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (not “Association”) that Qantas wasn’t the oldest carrier.

But M&C Saatchi, the Australian airline’s ad agency, had done its homework.

Qantas was launched on 16 November 1920; you might recall the muted centenary celebrations a few months ago.

The Dutch airline KLM was founded a year earlier. But it stopped flying for three months in the first Second World War summer of 1940. The key term in the ad is “flown continuously”.

One complainant was closer to the nub of the matter. “He believed experience should be measured in ‘flight hours’,” reports the authority. But the objection was dismissed: “Because the ad made clear the basis of the claim ‘most experienced airline’ we concluded it was not misleading.”

Does experience equal unparalleled safety? Many people seem be sticking with the Dustin Hoffman version of aviation history.

“Qantas never crashed,” his character Raymond Babbitt said in the 1988 film Rain Man.

In a snap Twitter poll that attracted 3,788 responses in two hours, Qantas was rated ahead of three other outstanding airlines: British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair.

The question: “Which of these do you believe to be the safest airline in terms of passengers flown without a fatal accident?”

Qantas gained 1,152 votes, well ahead of British Airways in second place on 951.

Yet as the record of tragedy shows, both carriers have suffered fatal accidents.

Australia’s national airline has had a phenomenally good record since 1951: seven straight decades of impeccable safety. But sadly, like many 20th-century carriers, it suffered a number of fatal crashes before that.

British Airways, too, has flown hundreds of millions of passengers safely for 35 years.

But since its creation in 1974 from the merger of European and long-haul carriers, BEA and BOAC, BA has sadly suffered two fatal accidents: a mid-air crash over Yugoslavia in 1976 and the Manchester disaster when an engine failed on charter flight departing for Corfu and started a fire in which 55 people died. That tragedy brought about many safety improvements that have undoubtedly saved lives since then.

In third place in the Twitter poll, with 852 votes, is easyJet – one of the thankfully many airlines (including Jet2, Virgin Atlantic and Wizz Air) that have a fatality-free record.

Britain’s biggest budget airline is actually the second-safest carrier in the world, having flown around 900 million passengers safely during its 25-year career.

Last place, with 833 votes, is occupied by Ryanair. This may not surprise you, since the Irish giant is accustomed to being a regular at the foot of the table for a whole range of surveys on a whole range of issues.

In this case, though, it is indisputable that Ryanair should be in first place, having carried 1.4 billion passengers in 35 years of safe flying – far more than any other carrier.

None of which seems to matter to AirlineRatings.com – which finds room for British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and many more in its top 20, but neither easyJet nor Ryanair make the grade.

Qantas and British Airways have outstanding safety records. The two budget airlines have the benefit of relative youth as well as formidable professionalism. And all are credits to an industry that gets safety right, time after time.

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