FLIGHT 122 From: HOBART Due: 1201 Expected 1255 Gate: 03
FLIGHT 123 From: SYDNEY Due: 1202 Go to special meeting desk
FLIGHT 124 From: PERTH Due: 1209 Expected 2315 Gate: TBA

Crikey reader David has asked a few questions in the wake of Qantas fumbles: “All this talk about Qantas’s safety record, yet is it REALLY that impressive? Is Qantas’s record as good as we are led to believe? And how are the stats to be compared: deaths, emergency landings per hour flown, per aircraft, per trip?”

Well, there is undoubtedly only one measure of the safety record of Qantas or any other airline that really counts in Australia and that is zero fatalities.

Zero, as in no fatalities in living memory, or today, or in the future.

No-one has been killed in a jet airliner flown by an Australian airline.

If there is an Australian airline disaster there is a high probability it will kill household names in business, in sport, and maybe a celebrity or two, as well as many others, and it will be remembered, on (insert airline day) year in and year out for the rest of our lives.

A serious crash caused by the failings of maintenance or flight standards in Australia can never be accepted on the basis that it had to happen, or somebody had a bad day.

Air transport activity in Australia, whether measured by head count, or passengers multiplied by units of distance, is comparatively small compared to North America, or Europe, where many thousands of airliners operate almost accident-free compared to many hundreds of flights in this country.

It may seem miraculous to the travelling public, but flying is astonishingly safe almost everywhere on earth above the level of bush pilot services and even that usually beats driving.

But beyond an intolerance of mass casualties what metrics can be used to make comparisons between airlines?

The best user-friendly resources on the internet are Airsafe.com, and Airdisaster.com. The former offers readily understood multiple statistical criteria and the latter uses a dead simple metric, in that all accidents in which one or more passenger dies due to the operation of the airliner and not a criminal act are treated as equal.

Both sites contain many errors and omissions that aviation pedants will find within minutes. Airsafe.com runs its comparisons from 1970, the year high capacity wide bodied jets were introduced in the Boeing 747. Airdisaster.com goes back to 1950, but fails to record the last Qantas disaster which killed all seven people on a piston-engined Drover on 16 July 1951 in PNG.

By treating each fatal accident as equal a clearer picture emerges of how dangerous or safe a carrier may be, irrespective of how long or short its flights or what size of aircraft is used, or the total killed in each crash.

It’s fair to carriers like Qantas or United that fly all sizes, and over all distances.

But there are no comprehensive statistics which integrate and facilitate comparisons between carriers, or even their sub-fleets, by the non-fatal safety performance criteria sought by David such as emergency landings.

There is no rigorous way to readily to divide those landings into cracked windscreens, passengers experiencing heart attacks, and a rising level of unexpected mechanical crises from routine false warnings lights or wheel bay doors jamming open to the blast that ripped open QF 30.

Comparisons of hours flown per aircraft or per trip only show who might be best using their aircraft. Low activity can mean a carrier is failing, and at risk of not having the cash flow to keep up maintenance or flight standards. The micro level data on airline operations is either non-existent, or commercial-in-confidence, or too unreliable to be useful for unambiguous comparisons.

The major airlines that fly to Australia that have never had a single fatality in a jet crash other than criminal acts outside their control include Cathay Pacific, Emirates, EVA Air, Hawaiian and Virgin Atlantic.

Other US carriers which have not recorded a passenger fatality include its largest airline by passengers boarded, Southwest, and the more recent low cost entrant JetBlue.

The only major European carriers other than those that very recently entered the market that are without a passenger fatality are the two large low cost airlines Ryanair and easyJet, and Finnair.

In interviews this week, following the announcement of the special investigation by CASA, Qantas has mentioned the burden of its safety record in modern times. Its executive general manager engineering, David Cox, even told AM on ABC Radio that “I think we’re a bit of a victim of our own success…”.

Those words brought into daylight the avoidable nightmare of an accident due to maintenance issues or flying standards.

The only burden that safety standards present to any airline is that of not killing its passengers through inadequately caring for its aircraft and preserving and renewing an outstanding asset in its pilots and cabin crews.