Is aviation safety a shameful thing?


“Why do airlines stay so silent about safety issues? “

By almost any measure, flying is the safest way to move long distances. Most airlines make massive investments into safety. Yet to our surprise, we have found that it is difficult for a casual outsider to find out precisely what the airlines are doing with that invested money.  All airlines have a safety culture, yet this culture is opaque to outsiders. I found that only 35% of airlines even wish to mention safety on their web pages.

Silence certainly does not benefit the customers of an airline. Customers should be able to make informed choices, and this includes understanding the safety record. How can the average person find such information? It  doesn’t benefit the airlines either. In a culture of silence, safety only becomes visible when disaster strikes. The easiest way for an outsider to understand the airline’s safety culture is to read accident investigation reports on how it failed (from NTSBAAIBOTKESSHKBEA, and the like). This is hardly positive advertising.

I asked a simple question: just how opaque do the airlines want to be?  To answer, I went clicking through the web pages of 83 major airlines. The scanning was purposely quick, to simulate an ordinary customer who wants to know what general attitude the airline has toward safety. If a company provided concrete safety information, it was marked as “safety-positive”. Full report (pdf): Airlines are safe; why try to hide it.

I found only 35% of airlines to be safety-positive. To put it another way,  almost 65% of airlines try to downplay the role of safety, to the level of ignoring the question altogether in their communications.

I made some further analyses to determine what might lie behind this fact.  It is important to realize that the essential safety standards around the world are quite similar. All of the airlines in this sample fulfill some standards that could be legitimately used to show that there is a safety culture in place. It is very much a communications decision whether or not the airline wishes to emphasize this point.

I gave the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.  A sentence on a “safety as our priority” means nothing. However, any attempt at a more concrete desciption (even a clumsy one)  was credited. Information on engineering, maintenance, or safety-related technology was considered safety-positive even if the term “safety” was not used explicitly. Such information at least gives the impression that aviation is a technical activity requiring technical care. The analysis is not about how slick the presentation is; it is about whether a good-faith attempt is made.

This is crucial when comparing airline to airline. A poor airline may have just one page of information about the company. If that single page contains a single paragraph about the safety standards that the company follows, then the airline is safety-positive. At the other extreme, a large airline may have dozens of flashy pages on issues like corporate social responsibility, environment, and sponsorships. If such a company fails to even mention safety as a topic, it is deliberate.

The call was surprisingly easy to make. Airlines seem to either put a heavy emphasis on safety, or else avoid the topic altogether; there is not much middle ground.  The results were somewhat surprising. Only 35% of airlines even mentioned safety or technical issues. The majority essentially try to paint an image of aviation as a non-technical activity that entails no risk. Some other key findings (more extensively discussed in the report):

  • 65% of the safety-positive airlines are from developing countries with poor track records of safety. Africa and the former Soviet Union were heavily represented.  Quite clearly, concrete safety actions are clearly used to to improve trust in the airline’s safety.
  • Safety-positiveness is not just a “weapon of the weak”; large and successful airlines such as British Airways, Air Canada, Air Berlin, and All Nippon Airways all had extensive safety sections.
  • Two airlines, Garuda Indonesia and Pakistan International Airways, have briefly been on the EU blacklist of airlines banned from flying to the EU due to poor security. Interestingly, the safety sections of these airlines were among the most extensive in the sample.
  • Only 2 low-cost carriers out of 16 (12%) were safety-positive. The web page information for many low-cost carriers is extremely scanty in any case, so there may be a general attitude toward minimal communication. However, the two counterexamples (Norwegian and Pegasus) suggest that a low-cost structure does not fundamentally require such reticence; those two companies have a very strong focus on safety.
  • A striking feature is that US companies seem to be the most averse to safety-positiveness; of the 9 US companies studied, none mentioned safety at all.
  • A similar reluctance was seen in Middle Eastern companies, where only one of six companies had any safety information.

These results do not imply anything about what airlines should do; they simply point out what the airlines are currently doing. However, the scatter in the results does suggest that there is no fundamental reason to keep safety information hidden; transparency about safety is a communications and business decision.

Since the results from this initial study were so intriguing, we have launched a new Zygomatica project to find out more.