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How To Check Your Airline’s Safety Record

The recent emergency landing made by a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-300 has raised concerns among fliers, but there are surprisingly useful steps you can take online to help alleviate those concerns. Nervous airline passengers can build up a picture of their airline’s safety record in forensic detail, see how it has performed in certain weather conditions, compare their airline of choice with rivals, and even look back at an aircraft model’s flight safety record.

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Concerns about airline fatigue were raised after a Southwest flight from Phoenix, Arizona to Sacramento, California made an emergency landing in Arizona last Friday after a hole suddenly appeared in the passenger cabin. Southwest immediately removed 79 of its 737-300s from service last weekend to inspect them. By Tuesday, it had found five other aircraft with fuselage cracks.

One of the best places to start your own personal investigations: The National Transportation Safety Board’s “Accident Database” contains intricate details on selected civil aviation incidents and accidents dating back to 1962, although full descriptions may not be available before 1993, in cases that are under revision or those where NTSB did not have primary investigative responsibility.

You can search by airline, aircraft, dates or even weather conditions. “Generally, a preliminary report is available online within a few days of an accident,” according to the NTSB. “Factual information is added when available, and when the investigation is completed, the preliminary report is replaced with a final description of the accident and its probable cause.”

I punched “Southwest,” “United States” and “737” into the NTSB database and looked back to 2001. It brought up 31 records, all described incidents and non-fatal accidents, except for one accident in 2005 (pdf) when a Southwest 737-700 plane slid off the runway at Chicago Midway Airport in snow and struck a car, killing one passenger in the automobile. Reassuringly, the NTSB gives a detailed assessment of the accident.

The Federal Aviation Authority also has an “Accident/Incident Data System” containing data records for general aviation and commercial air carrier incidents since 1978. An independent site, Airline Safety Records, describes itself as a report card for airline safety. It gives five-year and one-year averages of U.S. airline accidents per 1 million takeoffs up to January 2009.

International travelers can investigate their airline of choice through the International Air Transport Association, which represents around 230 airlines comprising 93% of scheduled international air traffic. You can search the reports at the IATA’s Operational Safety Audit by airline, but here you must complete a form and email it to the audit registry.

Do you check your airline’s safety record before you travel?


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    • has substantially easier access to the same information than the sites mentioned above. I usually check it when deciding between airlines among several similarly priced tickets for my family, especially outside the US.

    • look up in the sky

    • All of Southwest’s aircraft should be considered high wear and tear units becuase each and every plane flies an average of 7 flights a day! If this was a taxicab, it would be put through it’s paces over and over.

      Southwest’s aircraft should be viewed as a special case, and considered double the normal wear and tear of an average jet liner!

      Boeing needs to design a special heavy duty model for carriers like Southwest, with tougher outside skin, and tougher engines and so on to take the stress of such heavy duty usage.

    • If you still feel that you want to fly on Southwest, when you go to book your flight, simply ask what series your aircraft is. If they tell you 737-300 series, rebook your flight to a more modern aircraft. Southwest will soon get the message. There is no excuse for continuing to operate these planes. They didn’t know about this problem before, which is understandable. As aircraft ages there are a whole slew of problems which can develop. But, now that they know, if they continue to fly these planes, this is only an accident waiting to happen. No one can ever be sure now, how safe the 300 series aircraft are. The method of fastening the skin to the hull is now new and improved on the later series aircraft. That’s called progress, but to continue to fly an old warhorse like the 737-300 is mind boggeling. What for? To save a few bucks?

      If one of these plane disintegrates at 36,000 feet or the roof blows off, the pilot’s might not be able to recover and there could be a catastrophic failure of the hull and the resultant loss of human life.

      Why not err on the side of caution and just retire the aircraft before it’s too late?

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  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to or tweet @SMPayDirt.