Safety Article Roils Airline Group

The U.S. airline system is "safe. Very, very safe," according to a recent article in US News and World Report.

"America's Safest Airlines" sets out to rank U.S. airlines on safety. Yet the Air Transport Association, the leading industry group representing U.S. airlines, says the report is "terribly misleading."

US News and World Report points out that there has not been a fatal crash by a U.S. airline since Feb. 12, 2009, when a Colgan Air plane flying as Continental Connection crashed near Buffalo, N.Y.

Because there were no accidents last year, the magazine decided to rank airlines by how many "incidents" each airline experienced.

An incident is a mishap that doesn't qualify as an accident, such as a blown tire or mechanical malfunction.

The numbers are low. Very, very low.

JetBlue, the airline cast as "least safe" in the ranking, had 17 documented incidents out of approximately 219,000 flights last year. That works out to 0.0000776 incidents per flight.

The article declares AirTran "the safest" carrier, with five documented incidents out of approximately 255,500 flights, or 0.0000196 per flight.

With such a minimal risk level, the ATA says "any difference or change between the numbers can look dramatic, even though in reality, they are utterly meaningless."

Economists and analysts have long held that airline accidents and incidents are so rare that it is pointless to try to extrapolate any meaningful data from the numbers.

"Trying to rank the US airlines on safety is like trying to rank the players in this week's Pro Bowl. They are all at the top of their game, as are the airlines on safety," the ATA says.

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