A plane flying from Barcelona, Spain to Dusseldorf, Germany, crashed Tuesday morning in the French Alps. The New York Times reports that all of the estimated 142 passengers and crew on board are feared dead, and the search for the vessel, Germanwings flight 4U 9525, is currently underway. Business Insider reports that Germanwings is a low-cost airline that is entirely owned by Germany's Lufthansa. Germanwings was established as a direct competitor to Ryanair and easyJet, two of Europe's most popular discount airlines, and has 3 out of 5 stars on Yelp. With the number of plane crashes flooding the news recently, it's natural to wonder: do low-cost, budget airlines crash more often than standard-cost airlines?
Germanwings has been around since 2002, when it branched off from Eurowings, which was established in 1997. Germanwings, as part of parent company Lufthansa, has a solid safety record. Prior to Tuesday's deadly crash, the last fatalities aboard a Lufthansa flight occurred in 1993, when a plane overshot the runway, killing two passengers. As far as the Airbus 320 is concerned — the model and brand of plane that Lufthansa and many other airlines use — the very popular passenger plane is safe. According to AirlineRatings.com, the Airbus has a fatalities accident rate of 0.18 per million departures.
Are Low-Cost Airlines Less Safe?
Right off the bat, a "low-cost" or "budget" airline might make those looking to purchase plane tickets a little nervous. The monicker inadvertently hints that the companies cut corners when making the planes, or hiring the staff, or investing in safety precautions. In reality, that's not the case. A 2013 article in The Economist explains that low-cost airlines figured out a way to save on operating costs by making sure each flight was full, by offering no-frills or zero amenities on board and in its terminals, and by charging passengers for any service not absolutely necessary. Because some airlines are "budget" do not mean they are less safe, but let's look at the numbers.
Budget Airlines In North America
Let's cut to the chase: Flying is an extremely safe form of transportation. On average, 8 million people fly everyday, and in 2013, 3.1 billion passengers took to the friendly skies. Which is to say, about 40 percent of the world's population has been on a plane, and since commercial jetting was invented, there have only been 15 aviation incidents in which fatalities numbered 250 or higher. (This number does not count the four flights that crashed on 9/11 — those are classified as acts of terror, not a result of plane, airline, or pilot malfunction.)
Of the 20 worst plane crashes involving North American carriers, two were budget airlines. Pacific Southwest Airlines, described as one of the first low-cost airlines, saw one of its commercial planes collide with a private plane over San Diego in 1978. One hundred and forty-four people were killed. The second low-budget airline crash happened in 1996, when a ValuJet plane, which was en route from Miami to Atlanta, crashed into the Florida everglades, killing 110. The other 18 crashes happened on major airlines like American, Pan Am, United, TWA, and more.
In 2011, budget carrier AirTran was named the safest airline. Southwest came in second. It would be very difficult to say that North American budget airlines are less safe than others — in fact, their safety records are exemplary.
Budget Airlines In Europe
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst who spoke to USA Today, said on Tuesday: "No budget airline is going to skimp on safety. If you don't have a safe airline, then you don't have an airline. Period." He's not wrong.
On the whole, European discount airlines have a strong safety record. The number of budget airlines in Europe have increased over the years, and the two mainstays, Ireland's Ryanair and Britain's easyJet, are ranked highly when compared to the 425 airlines worldwide. The Telegraph reports that Ryanair is ranked as the 32nd most safe airline; easyJet is 17th. For what it's worth, no US carrier made the top 20, but budget airline Southwest came in at number 21.
Of the 10 worst aviation disasters in Europe, no discount airlines were involved.
Budget Airlines in Asia
Three planes — two based in Malaysia and one in Indonesia — have crashed with no survivors in the last year. In January, AirAsia flight QZ8501 crashed into the Java Sea after a potential updraft made the plane climb too fast. In July 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight M17 was shot down over the Ukraine, and in March 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 vanished into the Southern Indian Ocean. It's been a terrible 12 months. Malaysian Airlines is a major carrier and is not considered budget, nor low-cost. AirAsia, on the other hand, is a budget airline, and before the crash in January, its safety record was pristine. The Independent reports that many low-cost Indonesian airlines have been banned in Europe due to safety concerns, but AirAsia was not one of them.
Condé Nast Traveler stated that low-cost airlines in Asia have about 25 percent of the market share; Tiger Air and JetStar are among the popular ones. While Indonesia does have a shaky airline safety record, when you look at Yahoo's geographical breakdown of airline fatalities, India, Indonesia, and China are numbers nine, 10, and 11. At the top sits America, Russia, Canada, Brazil, Colombia, the U.K., France, and Mexico.
The International Business Times reported that "there are now about 50 budget carriers serving 16 countries in Asia and Oceania" and professional traveler Stephanie Be told the website that she has no concerns about flying in Asia. "It’s not as if the plane technology is of any lesser quality.”
The Budget Bottom Line
There is no evidence to suggest that a discount airline is less safe than any other airline. As the IB Times wrote:
“Airlines have every incentive to save costs,” Jan Brueckner, an economics professor at University of California, Irvine, and an aviation expert, said. “However, they know they have no incentive when it comes to skimping on safety,” Brueckner said, adding that the last thing any airline wants is a crash because of safety issues.
And Stelios Haji-Ioannou, easyJet's founder, summed it up nicely to The Guardian:
If you think safety is expensive, try an accident. You can be worth nothing just because of one mistake. ... I am determined that everything has to be 100 percent safe.
According to PBS, your odds of dying in a plane crash are still one in 11 million. Comparatively, your yearly risk of dying in a car crash is one in 5,000. And by the way, your odds of flying over a rainbow are still at 0 percent.
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