It’s an unfortunate fact that flying in Africa is more risky than just about anywhere else in the world.
Statistics seem to support what many travelers innately fear: that flying in less-developed countries — which Africa has a lot of — can somehow be dangerous. And public perception is not helped by headlines generated by the European Union’s notorious “blacklist” of banned airlines, many of which are from sub-Saharan Africa.
According to the most recent report from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the U.N., Africa had an air accident rate of 7.9 in 2011, versus the global average of 4.2 and the North American rate of 3.5. Another organization, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), shows a 2012 accident rate of 3.71 in Africa, versus .15 in Europe and .2 globally.
The Truth Behind the Headlines
Before you cancel your plans to travel to the continent, let’s put those stats into perspective. The ICAO stats show 7.9 accidents per MILLION departures, and the IATA stats reveal 3.71 accidents per MILLION flight sectors.
What this means is that you probably have a higher chance of being hit by lightning (as the saying goes) than of dying in a plane crash in Africa. And you’re only marginally more likely to be involved in a crash in Kenya than in Kiribati, in the grand scheme of things.
Most African airlines are very safe, especially the large, mainstream ones that fly to and from other continents. For example, Ethiopian Airways is one of the top airlines globally (not just in Africa). And carriers like South African Airways, Egyptair and Air Mauritius have not only a good safety record, but also (relatively) new planes and good service.
Yes, there were two crashes in Africa in past couple of years — Dana Air in Lagos, Nigeria, and a cargo jet in Accra, Ghana — with one resulting in passenger fatalities. But these were not the only aviation accidents in the world. Commercial flights also crashed in Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Russia, Myanmar and China during the past 18 months.
The smaller, lesser-known carriers and the countries with lax standards are what should concern travelers. Luckily there are ways to find out which ones to avoid. A good place to start is with the many international and national organizations which rate and monitor aviation safety and offer searchable lists and reports.
Obviously, the EU’s list is one source of information. It’s basically an index of airlines that don’t meet the EU’s stringent safety and training criteria for planes that traverse its airspace. 111 African airlines appear on the latest list, plus hundreds more from places like Indonesia and the Philippines.
111 sounds like a dire number, but bear in mind that the vast majority of these airlines are not ones that a typical tourist or business traveler would have any reason to be on. They are mostly obscure cargo carriers based in places like Benin, Congo and Angola — with the notable exceptions of LAM-Mozambique Airlines and Zambezi Airlines (Zambia).
Another good resource is the IATA member registry. The IATA does its own safety audits by airline, in a manner similar to the EU. Once an airline passes muster, it can become a member. At the moment, there more than 240 member airlines worldwide, including more than 30 in Africa. To search the IATA member registry, click here.
If you don’t see your airline in the IATA list, it means that the carrier is not a member. This may be because it chose not to be audited, or because it was audited and didn’t pass. Worryingly, the crashes last year in Accra and Lagos were both of unaudited airlines.
The Air Transport Rating Agency (ATRA), an independent Swiss-based research organization, also assesses the top 100 airlines by revenue in the world, using its own algorithms and a set of 15 “holistic” criteria. This won’t help if you are seeking information on small airlines from developing and emerging countries, but it does include many of the big well-known carriers: Ethiopian Airlines (ranked 69), Kenya Airways (76), Egyptair (38), and South African Airways (56).
America’s Federal Aviation Administration approaches aviation safety by country, not airline. Its International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) program rates the ability of various countries to adhere to aviation standards and practices established by the ICAO. A Category 1 ranking means the country meets the standards; Category 2 means it does not.
Nigeria, Morocco, Egypt, and South Africa fall into category 1, while Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gambia, and Swaziland fall into category 2. The problem with this list, which you can view here, is that it only covers countries which have existing (or proposed) service to the U.S. So a whole lot of African countries are not monitored by the FAA.
One rating system that pulls all of the above together is the one offered by AirlineRatings.com, which was started by an independent group of journalists and aviation experts. Their 7-star system rates 425 airlines around the world and takes into account the EU list, the FAA/IASA ratings, the IATA evaluations, and a few other factors. Plug in an airline name, and see what pops up; one-star airlines are best avoided.
And for those who simply want to know if a particular airline has been involved in a crash in the last 40-odd years, there’s always AirSafe.com, which tracks plane crashes and accidents worldwide, all the way back to 1970. But don’t assume that because an airline had a crash in 1990 that it’s a dangerous carrier now — many airlines that were once shoddy have improved dramatically in the last couple of decades. In fact, airline safety worldwide has improved greatly just in the last five years.
Some experts advise flying on airlines that are members of a major alliance such as Oneworld or Star Alliance, as member airlines tend to reinforce safety standards with each other.
If you’re still concerned about flying in Africa, an easy way to put the risk in perspective is to consider the danger of alternative forms of transport: air travel is 12 times safer than traveling by train, and 60 times less hazardous than traveling by car.