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Here's why budget airlines aren't less safe

Here's why budget airlines, who's employees and planes are worked harder, aren't less safe.

One hundred and fifty — that's how many lives were lost when Germanwings 9525 crashed into the French Alps a year ago this month. In the immediate aftermath, concerns were raised about safety in the budget-travel industry, concerns that some analysts were quick to dismiss. "When you pay less at a budget airline, you do get what you pay for; it's just less in terms of frills and customer service, not less in terms of safety," opined one expert. Statistics seemingly agree, showing no difference in accident rates between budget and mainline carriers. But is this really the case? Is there any truth to the claim that low cost means less safe?

Cheap fares offered by budget carriers are made possible through a relentless focus on cost control. This involves maximizing workforce and fleet productivity. Budget pilots fly more than mainline pilots, and the planes they fly run on tighter schedules. Balance sheets bear out the benefits of these efforts. According to one report, the cost per available seat mile (an accepted industry-wide measure of productivity) of some American budget carriers is nearly 40 percent lower than their mainline rivals. This disparity increases to as much as 65 percent in Asia. While lower operating costs are good for both airlines and passengers, achieving these savings by engaging assets more also entails risks.

For example, because budget carriers largely service short haul markets, maximizing workforce productivity means pilots must complete more daily trips and this means performing more takeoffs and landings. Considered to be among the most challenging of maneuvers, takeoffs and landings are also the riskiest; 61 percent of accidents involving fatalities have occurred during these phases of flight, a figure that reflects the small error margin tolerated from crew given the aircraft's close proximity to the ground. Requiring pilots to perform more of these maneuvers daily increases their exposure to this risk. Tight scheduling poses its own challenges, the most notable being a cascading series of delays through an airline's network should a single flight run late. The result is time-pressured staff rushing to meet preplanned flight times — the type of pressure that scientific studies have shown to impact safety.

Why these risks aren't reflected in accident statistics boils down to technology. The air transport industry has been revolutionized by technology, nowhere more profoundly than in the area of safety. Improvements in propulsion mechanics have helped reduce the rate of in-flight engine failures, and engineering advances have ensured that airframe corrosion does not necessarily render an aircraft inoperable like it did in years prior. Technology has also made human error more tolerable. For example, the "ground proximity warning system" generates an auditory alert if the aircraft is in danger of colliding with the ground. That's good news for weary budget pilots who, by virtue of flying more every day, face these risks more regularly. Similarly, the "engine indicating and crew alerting system" provides a visual message to pilots if ground staff, rushed to get a flight out on time, improperly shut a cargo door.

From electronic checklists to autopilots to runway awareness tools, the list of technological safeguards that lessen the impact of human error goes on and on. The result challenges the old adage that what can go wrong invariably will. Rather, as technology gets better, what can go wrong will almost always go right. This explains why, by one estimate, a passenger would have to fly every day for the next 123,000 years before being involved in a fatal airplane crash.

Budget carriers should be commended for making air travel affordable and accessible to the masses. But if safe passage is what passengers desire above all else, its technologists that deserve our thanks.

Ashley Nunes (nunesashley1@gmail.com) studies behavioral economics and operational performance in the transportation sector. He is a regular contributor to Aviation Week and Space Technology.

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