How safe is your airline?

When a Qantas A380 suffered what could have been catastrophic damage over Indonesia three years ago, travellers despaired. How could the safest airline in the world, by their estimation, have threatened so many lives?

They were no less bamboozled when Air France, one of the most prestigious full-service carriers, killed 228 over the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 in what appears to have been an entirely preventable miscalculation.

The Persian Gulf’s three boom carriers Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad, are the height of travel fashion and carry tens of thousands of Australians every week, but they operate from very different government jurisdictions. So how do we know whether we should trust them with our lives?

It’s one of the most urgent problems for Australia’s world travellers when around a third of the population travels overseas every year.

It’s a question that has caused Western Australian aviation writer and editor Geoff Thomas plenty of reflection over a lifetime of writing about aviation and airlines. Finally he has decided to do something about it with the launch last week of

Unlike other aviation industry raters of airline safety, it is very much consumer-focused and, apart from its safety assessments, includes overall reviews of airline service by users and even plans an airline food review section.

But the “killer app” for Thomas and 13 other specialists working on the project is to answer fundamental questions about safety.

“How do you know, how does the travelling public know whether an airline is safe or not? People kept asking me over and over and over again. And that’s the genesis of the idea,” he says.

“It was commentators, interviewers, whether radio or television, asking me how do we possibly know what’s a safe airline, what is not a safe airline.

“At the moment, the punters have no idea. They have no concept or whether an airline is safe or whether it is not.”

Already, the website has provoked major discussion within the industry. Blogger and air safety campaigner Ben Sandilands has questioned how, for example, Air France, is rated six out of seven for safety by so soon after a major disaster.

“It is inconceivable for Air France to be rated safer than Lion Air of Indonesia, on 2 out of 7, when it made its far less violent and totally survived water landing just short of the runway at Denspasar earlier this year,” Sandilands writes.

“There has surely to be an explanation as to why Jetstar would be given a 7/7 rating. There have been a series of serious incidents involving Jetstar…”

Thomas acknowledges all such ratings are discretionary, but his site uses only data from recognised industry processes and organisations, like IOSA, the operational safety audit being undertaken in developing countries by the International Air Transport Association.

“We’ve stayed away from anything that’s subjective,” he says. “You simply can’t get a fair assessment of incidents rights across the globe (from official data).”

As he explains, that’s because some countries simply don’t require airlines to report some types of incidents to protect their reputations, which is the “bizarre” weakness with existing industry safety raters. I discussed this issue in January this year.

“One of their disclaimers is that some countries don’t report incidents, so they’re judging Qantas against airlines that don’t report incidents,” Thomas says of Qantas’s downgrading by some safety raters after the A380 incident, when an engine disintegrated because of a defective factory part. “It’s very difficult to assess what’s a major incident and what’s a minor incident. That’s very subjective.

“Qantas should have been upgraded, not downgraded after the A380 incident because the pilots saved the day.”

I’d imagined that simply bought a database from an organisation like Skytrax (which operates and hosts the annual Skytrax awards) to launch its consumer review pages.

But Thomas reveals all the website’s data is original. “We built the entire database on all the airlines over two years,” Thomas says. “We sent out a questionnaire to dozens of friends and they reviewed airlines for us. That’s how we’re able to start with reviews from day one.”

Do you feel safe about choosing all the airlines that fly to Australia? Has there been any airlines you’d never fly again on safety grounds? It there a need for a site like Post your comments below.