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 quite opaque to outsiders.
This certainly does not benefit the customers of an airline. Customers should be able to make informed choices, and this includes understanding the safety record of the airline. How can the average person find such information?
Perhaps this does not 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 NTSB, AAIB, OTKES, SHK, BEA, and the like. This is hardly positive advertising. Is it possible for airlines to utilize their safety culture in a positive sense, rather than a negative sense?
Since safety culture is a huge and amorphous concept, we do not even try to tackle it as a whole. Rather, we reduce it to small independent studies approaching the question from different angles. If any synthesis can be made, it will made at the end.
Report 1: Airlines are safe; why try to hide it (pdf)
To start off, we wanted to determine just how opaque airlines are about their safety cultures. To answer this, we went through the web pages of 83 major airlines. The scanning was purposely quick, to simulate an ordinary customer who wants to know what kind of attitude the airline has toward safety. If a company provided concrete safety information, it was marked as “safety-positive”. It was found that only 35% of airlines appear to want any mention of safety on their web pages. However, the data also suggest that the decision on whether or not to be transparent is based purely on communications and business reasons; any company that wishes to be transparent could be so.
Report 2: Accident information and webpages (pdf)
Given that explicit safety information on web pages is so rare, we
expected to find no mention of any accidents at all. 46 large airlines
were chosen. Of those airlines, 37 have had significant accidents or
incidents. We found that 16 of those airlines did in fact note the existence of such accidents. Typically, the information was a small mention within the annual reports or press releases. Thus, somewhat contrary to our initial expectation, airlines do not try to scrub the accident history clean. However, the information is far from being easy to find, and the technical level is not high.
Report 3: Accident information comparisons (pdf to be added).
Link counts from Report 2 were calculated for several airlines and compared to several external factors. These included number of employees and passengers; revenue; year of founding; GDP and corruption indices of the country. With this data it was not possible to explain why some airlines had more links than others. It is possible that the decision to include this information to the site and make it easy to find is driven by matters internal to the company.