April 12, 2012
Who Is Checking If Your Airline is Safe?
Slutsky Maxim/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis
Even though the crash of a Russian airliner in Siberia last week continues a pattern of disasters in that country involving aging airplanes, poor maintenance, and sloppy regulation, there are other parts of the world where boarding a flight is more risky. For example, the Philippines and Africa.
The European Union has just updated its blacklist of airlines and continues a blanket ban on all carriers from the Philippines. It also lists scores of African airlines, where the worst record is held by the Republic of Congo.
However, these two black spots send very different messages about what is wrong.
In Africa, a combination of political corruption, civil wars, numerous rogue carriers, airplanes at the end of their life cycles, and no continent-wide safety culture means that there won’t be improvements any time soon.
The Philippines, on the other hand, shows what happens when a potentially rich market is opened up to carriers following western budget-airline business models without the infrastructure to support them.
You end up with a kind of Potemkin Village on the runway: new airplanes, splashy logos, and snappily dressed flight attendants masking serious deficiencies like negligent regulators and an acute shortage of experienced pilots.
And worse: aircrew taking drugs. In February, a pilot of Lion Air, a major Indonesian carrier, was arrested for possession of crystal meth; in the past eight months, three other Lion Air pilots have been arrested on drugs charges, and a flight attendant who went public with charges of pilots regularly taking drugs said she received death threats
Although Lion Air is on the European blacklist, another major Indonesian carrier, Garuda, has met the European standards—having been forced, after a series of crashes, to pass a rigorous review.
There is clearly an urgent need for a worldwide standard to determine when an airline should be banned for safety reasons.
The two most rigorous regulators, the European Union and the FAA in the U.S., use very different methods. Europe bans airlines, the U.S. bans countries.
But they share no common or consistent standard.
For example, while Europe has the total ban on the Philippines, the FAA allows Philippine Airlines (PAL) to fly into the U.S. but remains skeptical of efforts made by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines to clean up its act. Carriers from the Philippines are under the FAA’s Category 2 watch, which means that they can fly existing routes into the U.S. but not add either routes or change to larger airplanes and are subject to heightened surveillance.
The latest European blacklist, meanwhile, for the first time includes the Venezuelan airline Conviasa, cited for a record of accidents and safety issues raised after checks of the airplanes made at European airport.
And in an unusual step, Libya, where the airline infrastructure has yet to recover from the civil war, has agreed with European regulators not to resume flying into European airports until at least late November. Technically, this is not a ban and, in any case, Libyan Airlines seems able to circumvent this agreement by leasing an airplane from a European carrier—complete with a crew and including maintenance resources—and fly to London, Vienna, Athens, and Rome.
What should the concerned traveler take away from this far from perfect system?
As long as you book a flight on an airline operating out of the U.S., you can be sure it has passed an FAA safety audit. But if that flight connects to an airline not operating in the U.S., you will need to check the far more extensive blacklist published by the Europeans. Even then, the E.U. only has power to ban airlines flying into European air space, which leaves hundreds of airlines that are not caught in either of these two safety regimes.
So what we have here is a global business without effective global oversight. One body that is supposed to be global in its powers, the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, like other United Nations agencies, is hidebound by bureaucracy and international political sensitivities.
In contrast, the European Union’s blacklist reflects a political culture that is aggressive (and, many would argue, too intrusive) on all consumer-protection issues to a degree that would be impossible in the U.S. And in the U.S. the FAA’s technical staff, no matter how skilled and dedicated, are limited in their powers by political appointees who are notoriously susceptible to industry pressures.