Friday, January 28, 2011

Who is the safest Airline in the United States?

To begin with, every major U.S. airline is safe. Very, very safe. David Castelveter of the Air Transport Association of America says the "safety of all U.S. carriers is the best it ever has been" and that he "would not hesitate to fly any carrier." And indeed, when you look at the numbers, commercial air travel in the United States today is about as safe as it gets.

Incidents do happen, just very infrequently. And actual accidents are extremely rare, especially ones with fatalities. According to, the last fatal crash of a commercial U.S. passenger plane was on Feb. 12, 2009, when a Colgan Air regional plane operating as Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed into a residence in Buffalo, N.Y. The tragedy left 50 people dead, including 45 passengers, two pilots, two flight attendants and one person who was in the house at the time.

We thought a useful exercise would be to look at all of the documented incidents involving commercial U.S. passenger flights in 2010 and then rank which airlines fared the best. It would have been overly simplistic (not to mention, lazy) to leave it at that, so we decided the results would be more accurate if we disregarded the incidents where the airlines weren't at fault. It's not really fair to blame an airline when the incident is the result of a bird collision (33 of them last year, sometimes leading to more damage than you'd think), an unruly passenger (36 cases) or a medical emergency (31 incidents). There were also several episodes of turbulence leading to injuries, and even five instances where a flight was struck by lightning.

Keep in mind, even the incidents that did make the cut should be taken with a serious grain of salt, as many of them are innocuous mechanical issues where the flight crew is taking extra precautions. As Castelveter puts it, "Remember, when a red light goes on in the cockpit, the captain, in an abundance of caution, might opt to divert and have it checked out. That diversion or maintenance check has no reflection on safety."

This study only includes major U.S. carriers with a minimum of 600 flights a day on average. We calculated the number of incidents where the airlines were at fault and then divided that figure by the number of total annual flights, giving us an incident per flight ratio. We used the Aviation Herald and the Federal Aviation Administration as our sources, taking care to avoid duplicates. So, without further ado, we present you our list of America's Safest Airlines:

#8. JetBlue
Incidents per Flight: 0.0000776

17 documented incidents out of approximately 219,000 flights

With only 17 incidents out of approximately 219,000 flights in 2010, our "least safe" airline on this list is still absurdly safe. The most serious event occurred on Aug. 26 on Flight 262, when the plane’s parking brake became engaged during the approach and throughout the landing itself, resulting in a rough touch down at Sacramento International Airport (SMF) in California. All four main gear tires blew out and air traffic control noticed a small fire and some smoke near the landing gear, leading the pilot to order an evacuation. Seven passengers sustained minor injuries during the evacuation process.

#7. American Airlines
Incidents per Flight: 0.0000701
87 documented incidents out of approximately 1,241,000 flights

You know those times when pilots announce over the intercom that you should be seated and buckle up because there's going to be some turbulence ahead? Well, apparently, they're not kidding. While these incidents were not the fault of American Airlines (which means they don't count toward our incidents ratio), the airline had two significant events in 2010 that were turbulence-related. American Eagle (a regional affiliate of American Airlines) Flight 3224 had an incident on June 28 where severe turbulence led to the pilot declaring an emergency landing after a flight attendant told him that "she could not walk and a passenger [was] bleeding out of the mouth." The plane landed safely in Longview,Texas, but the flight attendant and passenger suffered serious injuries, while three other passengers incurred minor injuries.

The other American Airlines turbulence incident of note was Flight 20 on April 29, which resulted in one flight attendant receiving major injuries, and two attendants and three passengers suffering minor injuries.

#6. United Airlines
Incidents per Flight: 0.0000407
49 documented incidents out of approximately 1,204,500 flights

United had a scary moment on Jan. 10, 2010 when the plane’s landing gear on the right side did not fully deploy on Flight 634. Reportedly, the pilot gave fair warning, saying, "We are going to have an unusual landing." The crew initiated brace position and the plane landed in Newark, N.J. with the only partially deployed land gear, shooting sparks up along the runway. Passengers were evacuated by slides. Remarkably, only three passengers received minor injuries. As a courtesy, United refunded passengers' tickets and gave them vouchers toward future air travel.

#5. Delta Airlines
Incidents per Flight: 0.0000386
77 documented incidents out of approximately 1,994,725 flights

While all of these commercial planes have multiple engines (two to four, depending on the aircraft), the airlines take it very seriously when one does go down, usually diverting to a nearby airport. On Sept. 27, the pilot had to shut down the right-hand engine on Flight 116 from Atlanta, Ga. to Stuttgart, Germany, leading to a landing in St. John's, Canada. Four days later, the same plane had to shut down the same engine again. A similar incident occurred on Flight 1921 on Dec. 30, with two passengers obtaining minor injuries during the evacuation.

#4. Continental Airlines
Incidents per Flight: 0.0000260
23 documented incidents out of approximately 884,395 flights

One of Continental's more interesting incidents in 2010 was not the fault of the airline itself. Flight 239 was headed to Newark, N.J. from Miami, Fla. when the plane got too close for comfort with a Gulfstream II, coming within 1.04 miles laterally and 300 feet vertically of the business jet. Air traffic control error was cited as the cause, with the controller's training records showing "numerous recurring writeups for not maintaining positive control of situations, not taking timely action when required, and use of poor control judgment." There were no injuries suffered on board and no damage to the aircraft.

#3. US Airways
Incidents per Flight: 0.0000212
24 documented incidents out of approximately 1,131,865 flights

On Jan. 19, a US Airways Express regional flight overran the runway due to an incorrect flap setting. What's curious about this incident is that the National Transportation Safety Board found the probable cause to be the" flight crewmembers’ unprofessional behavior, including their nonadherence to sterile cockpit procedures by engaging in nonpertinent conversation, which distracted them from their primary flight-related duties and led to their failure to correctly set and verify the flaps."

Sometimes planes can find trouble before they even takeoff. On June 5, US Airways Flight 704 ran into Flight 413 while taxiing to a runway at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) in North Carolina. The taxiing airplane sustained only minimal damage, while Flight 413 received significant damage. There were no injuries on either airplane.

#2. Southwest Airlines
Incidents per Flight: 0.0000203
23 documented incidents out of approximately 1,131,500 flights

Two of Southwest's more troubling incidents in 2010 were related to cabin pressure. More specifically, the loss of it. Flight WN-778 was on its way to Austin, Texas from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. when it had to make an emergency descent due to loss of cabin pressure. The plane had to be diverted to Fort Myers, Fla. where three passengers were transported to local hospitals. Seven other passengers received medical attention at the airport. Flight WN-1777 also had to make an emergency descent near Birmingham, Vt. because of cabin pressure. While the experience must have been more than a little distressful for passengers (with oxygen masks dropping and everything), the plane landed safely with no reported injuries.

#1. AirTran
Incidents per Flight: 0.0000196
5 documented incidents out of approximately 255,500 flights

While all of the airlines on this list are safe, AirTran is the safest with the lowest number of documented incidents per flight in 2010. But even the victor isn't perfect. On Aug. 12, an engine cowling (the covering that is placed around the engine) separated mid-flight on Flight 807 from Indianapolis, Ind. to Baltimore, Md. The flight crew decided to divert to Dayton, Ohio, where they landed safely and without injury. As an interesting postscript, several metal fragments bearing the AirTran colors and "matching the paint scheme of Airtran engines" were discovered in fields near Knightstown, Ind. between Oct. 13 and Oct. 15. It is yet to be determined if the parts actually belonged to the airplane in question.

(Hamooda Shami - U.S. News and World Report)

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