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Are Some Airlines Just Too Dangerous to Fly?

• September 21, 2009 • 12:00 PM

A new study calls for standardizing aircraft maintenance across the globe, but until then, says one co-author, the answer just might be yes.

In the first days after it fell into the Indian Ocean in late June, Yemenia Airways Flight 626 appeared to be a typical example of slack practices by airlines operated from Africa and the Middle East.

The flight started in Paris on a newer plane but switched to a 19-year-old Airbus A310-324 for the second leg of its journey from Sana’a, Yemen, to Moroni in the Comoros Islands, which the pilot approached in high winds. Out of 153 crew members and passengers only one survived, a teenager named Bahia Bakari, who floated until her rescue by clinging to debris. European officials talked of banning Yemenia after the crash, but the cause remains unknown — the flight’s black box hadn’t been recovered — and they backed away from the idea in mid-July.

The real problem exposed by the aftermath of Flight 626 — how to make sure old planes are fit to fly by standardizing worldwide aircraft maintenance — has opened a rift in civil aviation as wide as the wings of a 747.

An article in the May edition of the Journal of Business and Economics Research could help close it. Two professors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., looked at 476 accidents between 2000 and 2007, excluding accidents caused by hurricanes or hijackings but not those linked to pilot error. They found that old planes used for commercial aviation with 19 or more seats have more accidents when operated from Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.

“When you look at the record, on the bottom of the pile are Africa and Asian countries because most of the time they are flying older aircraft,” says Bijan Vasigh, an aviation economist and study co-author.

Most of the accidents involve aircraft 15 to 24 years old, report Vasigh and co-author Jorge M. Herrera (who has since left Embry-Riddle). The two excluded accidents caused by weather or terrorism, and divided the accidents according to phases of flight, such as approach and landing, the most dangerous time when the pilot is busiest. Equipment made by McDonnell Douglas (merged with Boeing since 1997) is among the oldest still used around the world and has accidents at the rate of 14 per 1,000 aircraft, or 14 times as often as equipment manufactured by Airbus, a younger company with fewer old planes in use.

(Vasigh says he concentrated on the big three manufacturers, Airbus, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, because their equipment carried more people around the world, rather than include Russian-made jets, which are known for being involved in many accidents but aren’t used much outside the developing world. “Most of the Russian aircraft are flying in the Third World where safety practices are poorer and the accidents result from safety lapses, such as exceeding takeoff weight maximums and human error,” he says. Focusing on the Russian aircraft “could have really distorted the data.”)

Developing nations often assemble jet fleets by leasing or paying cash for clunkers. Oddly, the plane used in Flight 626, according to several media reports, was leased from a subsidiary of AIG, the giant insurer now controlled by the U.S. government. (Yemenia Airways did not respond to questions in phone calls or e-mails.)

Keeping planes up in the air is another way to hold down costs; when it comes to safety, flight cycles and hours of engine operation matter more than chronological age. If old planes are used beyond their designed economic life, as is increasingly the case, they need constant maintenance. Put the plane in countries that interpret transparency differently and where scant resources limit money, training, labor and spare parts, and care may fall short of international standards.

Developed countries aren’t immune to aging aircraft problems, but in the U.S. enforcement is stronger. Southwest Airlines, a low-cost U.S.-based carrier, missed some inspections on some older Boeing 737s, and last year subsequent inspections found cracks in six aircraft. This past March, the airline agreed to pay a $7.5-million penalty in a settlement with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. Southwest also agreed to enact new maintenance procedures.

Regulators such as the FAA have good model maintenance programs, but there’s no clear way to know what countries fail to follow them, write Vasigh and Herrera. “Standardization is difficult because of the element of jurisdiction” among countries and regions of the world, says Vasigh.

One important player is the European Union, which launched its airline blacklist in 2006 with about 190 countries, most of them in Africa. After the Yemenia disaster the EU’s transport minister, Antonio Tajani, renewed his calls for a unified worldwide airline blacklist.

Blacklisting hits airlines in their bank account and delivers a blow to a developing nation’s economy and pride, especially if it involves the “flag airline,” the national carrier. Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, operates Yemenia Airways jointly with the Saudi government.

Another important player, the U.N.’s Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization, steadfastly opposes the EU’s blacklist. ICAO has set many worldwide aviation standards since 1947 and favors the carrot over the stick, diplomacy and amicable dealing with civil aviation authorities in individual countries, not individual airlines. “It’s a difference in approach,” says Denis Chagnon, ICAO’s spokesman.

Europeans are frustrated with ICAO, especially its inability to rein in fly-by-night airlines based in Africa. ICAO’s audits “are good for turning up safety deficiencies,” an EU commission wrote two years ago, “but ICAO seems to be helpless in addressing them effectively.”

To keep matters in perspective, the death risk for a scheduled U.S. flight is one in 23 million, or slightly greater than the chance of an American child growing up to be elected president. Your chance of dying on a plane registered or maintained in the developing world is up to 20 times greater.

Indonesia provides a good example of the different approaches to safety enforcement.

After a series of crashes, the U.S. FAA downgraded its classification of Indonesia’s civil aviation authority, saying Indonesia lacked laws or regulations needed to meet minimum safety standards. But the FAA permitted Indonesian airlines to keep flying to the U.S. under tighter scrutiny at the same level of service as the FAA worked to correct the deficiencies.

The EU that same year banned all Indonesian airlines, including the country’s flag carrier, Garuda Indonesia. ICAO’s Council President Roberto Kobeh González headed to Indonesia and soon after executed an agreement with the Indonesia government under which it agreed to revamp its aviation system.

Recently, the EU reinstated Garuda and three other Indonesian airlines while keeping still other carriers in the country under the ban. Indonesia’s transport ministry says it is recruiting more inspectors and managers for its aviation program.

What compelled Indonesian carriers’ compliance — penalties, diplomacy or both?

That isn’t clear. Bill Voss, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based Flight Safety Foundation, doesn’t believe what the EU has done is enough by itself. “Blacklists aren’t a panacea,” he says. “What’s needed is decisive action from ICAO, but that’s not something you would anticipate from a 190-member, U.N.-affiliated group.”

U.S., European and Australian aviation safety agencies have entertained ideas about using tougher measures, such as limiting fleet age or the number of owners a plane may have, but all of these would be costly to airlines.

You can take some steps to protect yourself. Stay away from old Russian planes; they have been involved in many accidents. Stay away, also, from any EU-blacklisted carrier or any FAA-downgraded country. Startup airlines can be chaotic, so better to let them establish themselves for a year before taking a flight. Other than that, there isn’t much you can do, even when it comes to code-sharing, the practice under which one airline markets the flight but another airline provides the service or the connecting flight (although airlines do audit safety procedures of code-sharing partners).

In the absence of a reborn ICAO or effective reforms, Vasigh is unequivocal about blacklisting to force adherence to maintenance standards. Only a blacklist can “keep the airlines’ interest and also get travelers to pay attention,” he says. When that happens, “then the airlines have to become safer.” And then care of old aircraft may become consistent from Joplin to Jakarta.

Richard Korman
Richard Korman is an award-winning journalist, Web site manager and an author. His freelance writing has appeared in Business Week, The New York Times, and Newsday, while the Library Journal selected his biography of inventor Charles Goodyear as one of the best business-related books of 2002. Korman's career has included ghostwriting advice about sex and relationships and a CD called Write to Influence, about improving everything from e-mails to essays. He has a son and a daughter, both college students, and claims to be the loudest rock 'n' roll keyboard player in the Hudson River Valley, north of New York City, where he lives.

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