The world's safest — and least safe — airlines

·5-min read
worlds safest and least safe airlines 2021 - Getty
worlds safest and least safe airlines 2021 - Getty

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are among the 20 safest airlines on Earth, according to an annual ranking of the world’s biggest carriers.

The website AirlineRatings.com assessed 385 major airlines this year before delivering its verdict, taking into account previous incidents, the average age of their fleets and audits from governments and the aviation industry’s regulatory bodies.

It singled out Qantas as the world’s safest airline, as it has done in previous years, ahead of a chasing pack of 19 rivals.

BA and Virgin are the only UK airlines at the top table; others include Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Air New Zealand.

“Qantas has been the lead airline in virtually every major operational safety advancement over the past 60 years and has not had a fatality in the pure jet era,” said Geoffrey Thomas, AirlineRatings.com’s editor-in-chief. “But Qantas is not alone. Long established airlines such as Hawaiian and Finnair have perfect records in the jet era.”

In previous years, AirlinesRatings.com has listed the 20 safest airlines in alphabetical order but this year it put them thus (though did not describe it as a ranking)

The 20 safest airlines

  • Qantas

  • Qatar Airways

  • Air New Zealand

  • Singapore Airlines

  • Emirates

  • EVA Air

  • Etihad Airways

  • Alaska Airlines

  • Cathay Pacific Airways

  • British Airways

  • Virgin Australia/Virgin Atlantic

  • Hawaiian Airlines

  • Southwest Airlines

  • Delta Air Lines

  • American Airlines

  • SAS

  • Finnair

  • Lufthansa

  • KLM

  • United Airlines

How is it calculated?

It is perhaps particularly tricky to assess airline safety after a year where they flew much less than they are used to; Iata, the International Air Transport Association, says traffic was down 60 per cent in 2020 globally, from 2019.

Thomas said his team of editors analyses the following: crashes, serious incidents, audits from aviation’s governing bodies and lead associations; government audits, and fleet age in making their determinations.

“However all airlines have incidents every day, and many are aircraft or engine manufacture issues, not airline operational problems. It is the way the flight crew handles these incidents that determines a good airline from an unsafe one,” Thomas said.

“Our top 20 safest airlines 2021 are always at the forefront of safety innovation, operational excellence, and the launching of new more advanced aircraft like the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787.”

AirlineRatings.com isn’t the only organisation to rate carriers according to safety. Germany’s Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre (JACDEC) does likewise, and it is Finnair that currently takes the crown, ahead of Scoot Tigerair, Norwegian and Emirates.

  • Finnair

  • Scoot Tigerair

  • Norwegian

  • Emirates

  • Air Europa

  • Transavia

  • Etihad

  • Virgin Atlantic

  • KLM

  • JetStar Airways

Air safety has improved over the last 10 years - Getty
Air safety has improved over the last 10 years - Getty

Which are the world’s least safe airlines?

AirlineRatings.com has also published its lowest ranked airlines for 2021, those with just one star out of a possible seven.

There are eight:

  • Pakistan International Airlines

  • Air Algerie

  • Scat

  • Sriwijaya Air

  • Airblue

  • Blue Wing

  • Iran Aseman Airlines

  • Nepal Airlines

Incidentally, there are currently around 100 airlines – most of which you probably haven’t heard of – banned from EU airspace, or facing operational restrictions, as they don’t meet European safety standards.

The airlines banned from flying to the EU

  • All airlines from the Democratic Republic of Congo (10 airlines)

  • All airlines from Armenia (eight airlines)

  • All airlines from Djibouti (one airline)

  • All airlines from Sierra Leone (one airline)

  • All airlines from Equatorial Guinea (two airlines)

  • All airlines from Eritrea (two airlines)

  • All airlines from Afghanistan (two airlines)

  • All airlines from Kyrgyzstan (10 airlines)

  • All airlines from Liberia (one airline)

  • All airlines from Libya (eight airlines)

  • All airlines from Angola except TAAG Angola Airlines and Heli Malongo (seven airlines)

  • All airlines from Congo (five airlines)

  • All airlines from Nepal (20 airlines)

  • All airlines from Sudan (12 airlines)

  • All airlines from Sao Tome and Principe (two airlines)

  • All airlines from Sierra Leone (one airlines)

  • All airlines from Moldova, except Air Moldova, Fly One and Aerotranscargo (eight airlines)

  • Air Service Comores

  • Blue Wing Airlines, Suriname

  • Iran Aseman Airlines, Iran

  • Iraqi Airways, Iraq

  • Med-View Airline, Nigeria

  • Air Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe

  • Avior Airlines, Venezuela

But fear not, flying is still very safe

According to aviation analysts, Cirum, 2020 was one of the safest years in flying history, but that the reduced number of flights, due to the pandemic, did not dramatically reduce the number of accidents.

In 2020, there were 12 fatal airline accidents, resulting in the death of 332 passengers and crew, compared with 22 fatal accidents and 297 fatalities in 2019, pre-pandemic. In 2015, the safest year for aviation, there were nine accidents and 176 deaths.

In 2017, according to the Aviation Safety Network (ASN) there were just 14 fatal accidents involving commercial airliners, resulting in 59 deaths. This was down from 17 fatal accidents and 258 deaths in 2016. Furthermore, none of those fatalities involved a jet aircraft.

So, you see, there was not dramatic deviation for 2020.

However, if you consider the accident rate per million departures, and ignore number of deaths, 2020 was the safest year in aviation, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). It finds that the accident rate was 0.9 per million departures for 2020, lower than the nearest year of 2016, when it was 2.21.

ASN’s database shows 561 deaths involving commercial flights in 2018, almost 10 times more than the whole of 2017, making it the deadliest year for aviation since 2014, with 555 deaths.

But this is still way down on the number of annual fatalities seen in previous decades. More than 1,000 deaths per calendar year was commonplace until just over a decade ago. In 2005 there were 1,075. The figure for 1996 was 1,844. The deadliest year of all time was 1972, when 2,380 people died in 72 accidents involving commercial airliners – a number that is all the more remarkable when you consider how few departures there were compared with today (around 9.5 million, compared with almost 37 million in 2017).

Modern air travel remains remarkably safe. Over the past decade, the accident rate has fallen from 4.1 for every million departures in 2011 to 2.21 in 2016. In 2019 it rose to 3.02.

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